SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany—A Russian cruise missile had just hit Lviv, Ukraine, in late March when a U.S. Air Force F-35 arrived to airspace in nearby Poland. The 34th Fighter Squadron pilot could faintly make out the civilian population and the aftermath of the strike below.
“You could see the smoke from where they said the cruise missile hit at the airport,” said Capt. Alex Harvey, 31, who is part of a squadron deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, on a NATO Polish Air Policing mission.
“Since we’re such a defensive posture, and we’re there to just do the policing mission, it can get routine,” added Harvey, the squadron’s chief of weapons and tactics. “That made it real for me.”
Before deploying, Harvey and 20 other pilots had been on alert as an immediate reaction force. Each night he watched the news. Each night, he and his wife wondered if he would be sent to NATO’s eastern flank.
Then, on Feb. 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, the squadron deployed. Another member, Maj. Nolan Sweeney, 34, left a bouquet of flowers on the stairs for his wife.
Russia invaded Ukraine a week after the squadron arrived to Spangdahlem.
Sweeney and Harvey now wear mustaches. They are deployed.
In the two months since, the pilots have flown hundreds of sorties, commuting 650 miles each way in their Joint Strike Fighters to eastern Poland. In that time, Russia has launched more than a thousand missiles at Ukraine, populating the skies with its fighters from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
NATO Air Command maintains more than 130 aircraft on alert with 24/7 Air Policing missions up and down the eastern flank of the alliance.
Air Policing missions have scrambled to face Russian jets launched from Crimea, and they have observed Russian aircraft violating international norms in airspace near Poland. Polish Air Force officials say the Russian jets fly without transponders and do not file flight plans. Still, since the invasion was launched, the NATO pilots have made no intercepts, a move to escort an aircraft out of NATO airspace.
“We’re there to defend the West from the East,” said Harvey.
“We’re there just to look around, say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in Ukraine that we can see from this far? What’s going on in Belarus and those areas?’” he added. “But we’re just literally there just to be there.”
Within a week of the deployment, President Joe Biden announced that six F-35s would be forward deployed on rotation to three eastern flank countries: Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. For several days, the F-35s took off and landed from NATO countries strategically located and compatible with American aircraft.
The six have since pulled back to Spangdahlem for a full suite of support personnel and their own hangars. In their place, F-15s, F-16s, and Marine Corps FA-18s have deployed to conduct Baltic and enhanced Air Policing missions along the eastern flank.
Still, these F-35s are flying six-hour-long sorties that require two to three KC-135 tanker refuels from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., also deployed to Spangdahlem.
The winter weather and limited capability of eastern flank nations to host fifth-generation aircraft has presented challenges.
From broken refuelers and dangerous icing conditions, to bad weather that can prohibit a safe landing, numerous unknowns have challenged the aviators’ composure and training.
On a recent day, Harvey arrived to his Air Policing zone in eastern Poland with 20 minutes of fuel before he was notified that his tanker had broken and could not refuel him.
“If it goes wrong, it can go wrong in a very poor way,” said Harvey.
“We assume [the tanker] is going to be there. What if they’re not? Or, we assume we can go to this field. What if we can’t because the weather’s bad? That kind of stuff is intense,” he said.
“Now I’m in a tough spot. So, now I’m in an emergency-divert profile to somewhere else,” he speculated. “I go to Slovakia, maybe. Do I limp back to Germany, maybe? Maybe I can’t, or maybe I have to land in really bad weather, which is—that’s pretty tough.”
Harvey was able to land in Lask, Poland, where Marine Corps FA-18s are performing an Air Policing mission. There, he was able to refuel and trade patches with the Polish refueler before firing an afterburner takeoff to ensure he had enough runway space.
Once they’re performing their NATO Air Policing mission, they defend NATO airspace. They deter.
Still, they see a war happening below them.
On their radar, aviators have seen all classes of Russian fighters and Ukrainian platforms in the sky. Other F-35s on Air Policing missions from RAF Lakenheath, U.K., or British or Dutch F-35s, are forming their own radar pictures that are automatically shared.
“I can see the entire Polish border from Slovakia to Kaliningrad,” said Harvey.
“If his radar detects an airplane, that’s, let’s say, approaching NATO, my jet shows that to me as well,” he explained. “We’re still defensive, and whatever could happen with that, we all know about it together. So, there’s less chances of surprises, less chance of miscalculations. It’s still de-escalatory.”
The F-35’s sensors also penetrate deep into Ukraine.
The F-35 has radar, infrared, and other sensors that form a picture hundreds of miles into Ukraine and Belarus, gathering information that is displayed on the cockpit screen, shared with allied F-35s on Air Policing missions nearby, and relayed to NATO command centers.
The U.S. government has publicly said it shares intelligence with Ukraine that is helping the country to produce battlefield successes. The 34th Fighter Squadron pilots would not say if the data their aircraft gather on Air Policing missions contributes to that picture, but U.S. Air Forces in Europe confirmed that information collected through a variety of platforms adds up to a common intelligence picture.
Before the Russia-Ukraine war, American F-35 pilots trained daily on their own and with allies during occasional exercises and joint training in simulators.
Now, day in and day out, Airmen build airmanship and decision-making skills. They communicate with each other and NATO allies, sharing best practices about the platform’s use and learning theater insight from European allies.
Their aircrafts are also “talking” to each other, sharing data and putting into practice all of the combat capabilities in which the fifth-generation aircraft was designed to excel.
“Our aircrafts are talking to one another,” said Sweeney. “You add in more F-35s, now the capability increases exponentially.”
Added Harvey: “The F-35 specifically works better the more F-35s that are talking to each other.”
Russia has repositioned its forces in Ukraine in recent weeks, moving away from Kyiv and refocusing on areas of eastern and southern Ukraine where it has had more success.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives are not known, but his desire for a greater Russia, one that reconstitutes the Soviet Union’s former states and spheres of influence, contradicts the current world order.
The Baltic states are no longer part of the Soviet Union. Poland is not a satellite country. Romania and Bulgaria are free democracies. Nine NATO countries on the eastern flank do not want to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
NATO Air Policing is the deterrence measure meant to ensure that boundary in the sky is not crossed.
“When we go up there, it’s not just a Wisconsin dude sitting in a gray aircraft up there,” said Sweeney. “It’s a representative of what NATO’s mission is: to deter, train, and provide readiness.”
Harvey spoke of the “honor” of being the execution arm of the NATO deterrence policy.
“You can see for miles and miles, just with your own eyes up there,” he said.
“You can look out, and you can see Lviv, for example, and it’s just particularly moving, knowing that all is right there,” he added, reflecting on the war and his NATO mission. “It has been, and I pray, will continue to be a purely defensive part.”