Tag: F-35 Lightning II

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Russian Su-30SM and Italian F-35As Had Their First Close Encounter Over The Baltic Sea

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Russian Su-30SM Italian F-35A
A screenshot of the video released by the Fighter Bomber instagram account showing the Russian Su-30SM and the Italian F-35A.

A video shows an interesting intercept that occurred in international airspace off Estonia.

It was just a matter of time but, in the end, a pretty interesting (and quite relaxed) close encounter between a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM two-seat multirole aircraft and two Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft, took place in the Baltic Region.

One video and two shots, released today by the popular “Fighter Bomber” (@fighter_bomber_) Instagram account, show a Russian Su-30SM Flanker derivative flying alongside two F-35As over the Baltic Sea, somewhere off Estonia, where the Italian stealth jets are deployed to carry out QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) task in support of NATO Baltic Air Policing mission.

The short clip shows the two F-35s approaching what seems to be a An-12 (like the one already intercepted by the Italians in that scenario on May 14) aircraft that is probably flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast escorted by at least one Su-30SM.

The Italian F-35A involved in the intercept belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, the first unit of the Aeronautica Militare to receive the Lightning in 2016 and the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in November 2018. As explained in details in a few recent articles, the Italian jets have arrived in Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021, marking both the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to the Baltic and the first time 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States. On May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

The Italian F-35A jets carry out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service in the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay. They also carry RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers (so they don’t fly in stealth mode).

Interestingly, the Su-30SM in the video appears to carry an IR-guided R-27T/ET (NATO reporting name AA-10 Alamo) air-to-air missile. Even more worth of remark is the fact that the Flanker was escorting an An-12: unless this was some special mission variant of the “Cub”, it seems quite weird that the Russian Su-30SM was escorting a simple transport aircraft. Unless, they knew NATO would scramble the F-35s and wanted the close encounter to take place.  Anyway, let’s also wait for NATO to release some details (and possibly photo) of the intercept.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Integration Between 4th and 5th Gen Aircraft Among The Key Themes Of Astral Knight 2021 Exercise

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Astral Knight 2021
Some images of the assets taking part in Astral Knight 2021. (All images: Claudio Tramontin)

Astral Knight 2021 was a U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa-led joint multinational exercise that took place in the Adriatic region.

From May 13 to 21, personnel and assets from the U.S., Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Slovenia, took part in the latest iteration of Astral Knight, a joint multinational exercise with the “aims to enhance the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air, land and sea capabilities, and overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise.”

Astral Knight 2021 saw the return of the drills to the Adriatic theatre after the 2020 edition took place in Poland and the Baltic area.

This year, participating aircraft, based at Aviano AB, Italy, and several other locations across the region, included the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle belonging to the 492rd Fighter Squadron, deployed to Larissa, Greece; F-16 Fighting Falcon jets and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters belonging to the 31st Fighter Wing from Aviano; C-130J Super Hercules aircraft from various bases; Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft belonging to the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola AB; Hellenic Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon and Emb-145 Erieye aircraft; and Croatian MiG-21 BisD/UMD aircraft.

Astral Knight 2021
F-16 in Have Glass V paint scheme.

A NATO E-3 AWACS and several KC-135 and KC-46 tankers also supported the exercise flying their racetracks over Italy and the Adriatic Sea, where they could be tracked online on an almost daily basis by means of their Mode-S transponders. Interestingly, online flight tracking apps and websites exposed also the presence, over Croatia, of an “unannounced” USAF E-8J Joint STARS, most probably involved in the drills.

“[Astral Knight 2021] is USAFE’S exercise for integrated missile defense,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Richard Greer, 31st Fighter Wing AK21 exercise planner. “The [exercise participants] are linking all of their command and control nodes together to be able to show a combined radar picture.”

Astral Knight 2021
F-16 taxiing.

The integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) exercise focused on defending key terrain, and scheduled training involved a combination of flight operations and computer-assisted scenarios.

This year’s edition of Astral Knight was also linked to Adriatic Strike 2021, a Slovenia-led JTAC training exercise involving 22 NATO nations intended to develop interoperability joint readiness capability. As already reported, a Spanish Tiger helicopter flying an Adriatic Strike mission was forced to perform an emergency landing after hitting a power line in Slovenia.

Integration between 4th and 5th generation aircraft by means of Link 16 was again one of the key themes of Astral Knight.

Astral Knight 2021
One of the Aviano AB-based HH-60G Pave Hawks.

While U.S. Air Force F-35As (belonging to Hill AFB’s 421st Fighter Squadron) integrated operationally with Italian Air Force F-35As and communicated with each other over the MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link) for the first time in 2019, Astral Knight 2021 saw two Italian F-35As deploy for the first time to Aviano AB, where they were cross-serviced by eleven F-35 crew chiefs from Hill, Eglin, Eielson and Luke Air Force Bases.

Astral Knight 2021
One of the two Italian F-35s landing at Aviano AB on May 20, 2021.

The two Italian Lightnings, including the latest delivered airframe coded 32-13 with special tail markings, made their first landing at Aviano AB on May 20, 2021.

“We started off with hot-pit refueling and interoperation servicing (IOS),” U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Drace Bertrand, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit F-35 crew chief said. “We had ITAF members here with us, just in case anything went wrong. We then sent the jet up to perform another mission after the IOS.”

Some interesting details about the participation of the ItAF F-35s in AK21 were released by the U.S. Air Force:

“I was flying in AK19 with the [ITAF] squadron and a [U.S. F-35s] with my former students over the Adriatic Sea,” said ‘Decker,’ ITAF 13th Squadron commander. “I felt at home in a perfect comfort zone, sharing plans is a strength for conducting operations.”

During this multinational exercise, they had the opportunity to strengthen and improve communication, partnerships and operational capabilities.

“The opportunity to put together activities, efforts and experiences is one of the added values of this [exercise],” said Decker. “It give us the chance to operate together in a harmonized scenario that satisfies the needs from all the players.”

Decker, one of the first two ITAF instructor pilots who trained on the F-35 in 2016, spoke on the F-35’s capability for interoperability with older aircraft such as F-16 Fighting Falcons during AK21.

“The Italian air force is strongly focused on the integration activity between 4th and 5th-generation aircraft, with a particular focus on the ways in which systems, including the fundamental chain of command and control, are able to interact, communicate, integrate and help each other,” said Decker.

The Italian F-35s, equipped with both the MADL and Link 16, communicated with legacy aircraft and performed the function of “enhancers” of previous generation platforms.

AK21 builds upon nations’ joint capabilities, ensuring enhanced interoperability. Decker said he has high expectations for future Astral Knight exercises.

“The more exercises like [AK21] that are in place, the more partnerships will strengthen and the more we become a unified force ready to carry out the assigned tasks for the protection of NATO airspace,” said Decker.

We had the opportunity to visit Aviano AB during the Media Day of the Exercise. The photographs you can find in this report were taken by our photographer Claudio Tramontin on May 21, 2021.

Astral Knight 2021
Aviano Viper.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

RAAF Declares Initial Operational Capability For Australia’s F-35A Lightning II Jets

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Head-on view of an F-35A Lightning II flying off Newcastle, NSW. (Image credit: RAAF)

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-35A fleet has achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC).

Australian Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon. Linda Reynolds, CSC, and Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price MP, declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for Australia’s F-35As on Dec. 28, 2020. With the IOC, the RAAF Lightnings can be deployed operationally, joining the other services all around the world that have already achieved the capability: U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Italian Air Force, Israeli Air Force, Republic of Korea Air Force, Royal Air Force, Royal Norwegian Air Force and Japan Self-Defense Air Force.

Australia currently operates a fleet of 33 F-35As, and RAAF crews have surpassed more than 8,780 flight hours to date, with more than 45 pilots and 600 maintainers supporting the fleet. The service should procure 72 aircraft to replace to replace the “Legacy” F/A-18A/B Hornet jets and complement the F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack aircraft. The 5th generation aircraft should equip three squadrons, two at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales, and at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory. RAAF plans to achieve FOC (Final Operational Capability) by 2024.

Australia’s first two locally-based F-35A fighter aircraft arrived on home soil at RAAF Base Williamtown (accompanied by 4 F/A-18 Hornets), on Dec. 10, 2018.

Since Dec. 18, 2014, when the first Australian F-35A Lightning jet arrived at Luke Air Force Base, a certain number of Aussie F-35s have been deployed to the U.S. and operated by the 61st Fighter Squadron “Top Dogs” of the 56th Fighter Wing, as part of the multinational academic training center, under a pooling arrangement between the U.S., AustraliaNorway and Italy, which share IPs and aircraft to train new pilots and instructors within the same standardized framework.

Those “Kanagaroo F-35s” were expected to return home by the end of 2020, although it’s not clear whether they have already left Luke or not.

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