Tag: F-35A Lightning II

F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air Force

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air Force
The cover of the 2022 calendar. The 100-1 marks the fact that 2022 will lead to the centenary of the Italian Air Force that will be celebrated in 2023 (on Mar. 28, 2023). (All images: ItAF / Troupe Azzurra)

The Italian Air Force 2022 Calendar Marks A Significant Change In The Service’s Communication Strategy.

On Oct. 7, 2021, the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) presented its 2022 calendar during an event attended by civil and military authorities as well as media representatives organized in a recently restored hangar at Urbe airport, in Rome, Italy. While the annual Italian Air Force calendar has a reputation for its choice of amazing photographs, the 2022 edition is much more interesting (at least to this Author) than usual: in order to show, “without hypocrisy”, the service’s most modern and advanced face, the new calendar features an F-35A in “Beast Mode” on the cover and 12 main shots (one for each month) of aircraft in “operational configuration”.

More in detail, F-35A Lightning, Eurofighter Typhoons, Tornado IDS and ECR, and also a T-346 (M-346 Master) are depicted carrying (inert) weapons in the 2022 calendar marking a first for the Italian Air Force: for various reasons, the Aeronautica Militare has always been rather cautious in showing only its peaceful face, highlighting the dual role of its fleet and the missions flown in support of the population, almost hiding the most realistic nature of its tasks.

- F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air ForceTwo F-35A of the 32° Stormo.

The change in communication strategy found its most evident expression in the 2022 calendar where we can eventually find F-35s, plenty of bombs and swing-role Typhoons, three “taboo topics” until a few years ago. However, the switch was already underway. It all started with the slow acceptance of the Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation aircraft by the public opinion and the subsequent drop from the interests of those parties who had made of the fight against the American stealth aircraft one of the cornerstones of their political agenda.

A step at a time, after years of ostracism, the Air Force became less “shy” of its most advanced aircraft and, between 2018 and 2019, the first significant details about the F-35 and its progress (including the Initial Operational Capability or the first deployment under NATO command) started to be released until, in 2020, the images of the ItAF F-35A and B flying together in Beast Mode for the first time were published on the Italian Air Force website. A pretty bold move considered the earlier “low profile” approach, that eventually led to the F-35 in Beast Mode (an Italian Beast Mode considered that the aircraft can’t carry any AAMs – Air to Air Missiles – on the outer pylons since the AIM-9X is not in inventory and the IRIS-T integration has not been requested) making the front cover of the 2022 calendar

The more relaxed atmosphere surrounding the program made it possible for the Aeronautica Militare to eventually publicly talk about the Typhoon as a multirole aircraft.

- F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air ForceTwo Eurofighter Typhoons of the 4° Stormo (Wing).

Unlike other partner nations that used the Typhoon for air interdiction missions quite soon, the Italian Air Force hadn’t initially planned to employ the Typhoon is the air-to-surface role, stubbornly claiming that the Eurofighter was just an air superiority fighter. In 2016, when the Italian Typhoons took part in their first Red Flag exercise, three of the Typhoons deployed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, were Tranche 2 examples that embedded the P1E(B) upgrades and were loaded with the latest Software Release Package. The two T2 Typhoons carried also two inert GBU-16 Paveway II LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and the Litening targeting pod. At that time, the Italian Air Force claimed the Swing Role capability was being developed only to support the platform’s export capabilities and help the industry promoting the aircraft in particular regions (like Kuwait). Following the Red Flag participation, a team of experienced Eurofighter pilots was destined to the new role and those aircrews who were already dual role qualified took part in a TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme) course at Albacete flying the Swing Role mission. Little by little, the Italian Air Force continued to work on the “multirole evolution” of Typhoon that was also deployed to Kuwait in support of OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve) in Syria and Iraq, and eventually became more vocal about the swing-role capabilities of the Eurofighter, as proved by the official photographs of the Typhoons carrying the new GBU-48s released earlier this year.

In the end, the photos of the armed Italian aircraft (that are accompanied by many historical images and details of aircraft that preceded the birth of the service in 1923) are quite cool.

As already said, along with the F-35A in Beast Mode (that is not an official or technical term but just a common way an F-35 configuration involving both internal and external loads is dubbed) and the Typhoons with GBUs there are also other types in the 2022 calendar, including a Tornado IDS with GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) with a Tornado ECR carrying two AGM-88 HARMs; two T-346 advanced jet trainers including one with a CATM-9 (Captive Air Training Missile); an HH-101A Caesar in the new overall grey color scheme, two KC-767A tankers, a new HH-139B, an MQ-9A Predator B UAS (Unmanned Aerial System); a T-260A basic trainer; and a G550 CAEW.

We can’t but notice that the only significant missing one is the F-35B STOVL aircraft that was one of the highlights of the recent Rivolto airshow that celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori display team.

- F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air ForceTornados of the 6° Stormo in action.
- F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air ForceT-346A Master.

By the way, it’s worth remembering that also last year the calendar contained a gem: a rare photograph of the secretive YEC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation), the EW (Electronic Warfare) variant of the C-27J Spartan.

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - F-35 In ‘Beast Mode’, Swing-Role Typhoons And Everything You’ll Find In The 2022 Calendar Of The Italian Air Force
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.

The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification
An F-35A Lightning II takes off to complete the final test exercise of the nuclear design certification process at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021 . Test pilots flew to the Tonopah Test Range at Nellis AFB and released two B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies from operationally realistic flight envelopes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

The Lightning II gets one step closer to become the next Air Force aircraft, and first 5th Generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) announced on October 4, 2021, the completion of an important milestone for the F-35A Lightning II, which is now one step closer to becoming the next U.S. Air Force aircraft, and the first 5th Generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. This milestone saw the F-35 performing the first Full Weapon System Demonstration, considered the “graduation” flight test exercise for achieving nuclear design certification from an air-delivered platform.

The demonstration involved two F-35s assigned to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, according to the photos released with the announcement, but flown by pilots from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group. After taking off from Nellis AFB, Nevada, the two aircraft flew for 160 miles and conducted two separate drops of high-fidelity, non-nuclear mock B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs) at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range.

The jets released the inert weapons at varying altitudes and airspeeds, clearing the desired operationally realistic flight envelopes in which the F-35A plans to operate. The flights marked the last of 10 guided releases of B61-12 test assets from the F-35A as well as the first release of the most representative B61-12 test asset from an operationally-representative F-35A (that might explain why Hill AFB’s jets were used instead of the 422nd TES own ones).

“The B61 series weapons are tactical gravity nuclear weapons that can be used on Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E and F-16C/D,” said Lt. Col Daniel Jackson, division chief, Headquarters ACC Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. “Having a 5th Generation DCA fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission.”

While the Lightning II is not yet fully certified to conduct real world nuclear operations, the successful completion of this Full Weapon System Demonstration concludes on-aircraft testing for F-35A’s initial nuclear certification effort. The nuclear certification is broken into two phases: nuclear design certification and nuclear operational certification. As already mentioned, this test concluded the first phase.

- The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design CertificationAn F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. Two F-35A Lightning II aircraft released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies during the first Full Weapon System Demonstration, completing the final flight test exercise of the nuclear design certification process. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

This demonstration was the culmination of years of planning and lead-up flight test activities and involved numerous organizations across the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DoE), which are now performing the technical analysis of the data collected during the test, with the goal of ensuring that all test requirements were met and that the B61-12 performs reliably and safely on the F-35A in all phases of operation.

“The B-2 bomber was the prominent nuclear capable stealth aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Jackson. “Adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a 5th-Gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet.” In addition to the F-35A, the B61-12 bomb will also be certified to fly on the F-15E Strike Eagle, B-2 Spirit, F-16C/D and F-16 MLU Fighting Falcon, PA-200 and B-21 Raider.

An estimated timeline for the completion of the full F-35A nuclear certification in support of real-world operations has not been released.

The successful completion of this test however covers a critical part of the nuclear certification process and ensures the F-35A will remain on track for future timelines, according to the JPO. The press release also specifies that not all aircraft will become nuclear-capable upon the full certification and only those units with a nuclear mission will be given the hardware and manpower necessary to configure and maintain nuclear capable F-35s.

The B61-12 capability on the F-35A also marks another significant achievement for the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin, as it becomes the first weapon to complete development and integration during F-35’s modernization phase. The F-35A will eventually play a critical role in the NATO nuclear deterrence mission as a complement, and later on as a replacement, of the F-16 and , fulfilling the requirements of the alliance’s nuclear sharing agreement.

The B61 entered service 50 years ago and has undergone a Life-Extention Program (LEP) to consolidate and replace four legacy bomb variants, the B61 -3, -4, -7, and -11 mods, into the B61-12. The refurbished B61-12 will allow the retirement of the larger B83, becoming the only remaining gravity delivered nuke in the inventory. The bomb will carry a low-yield nuclear warhead with four yield options, reportedly 0.3 kilotons, 1.5 kilotons, 10 kilotons and 50 kilotons, instead of larger warheads like the models it is replacing (which can reach 400 kilotons depending on the variants).

The 12-foot, 825-pound bomb is designed to be delivered from the air in either ballistic or guided-gravity drop modes, thanks to a new Boeing-built tail assembly that includes an Inertial Navigation System (INS) precision-guidance package and two spin rocket motors that improve the bomb’s stability on its longitudinal axis during the descent. The LEP is said to be increasing the B61’s accuracy so much (with a reported 30 m Circular Error Probability instead of the original 100 m) that it will have the same capability against hardened targets as the much more powerful weapons it is replacing.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

U.S. Air Force Officially Activates 495th Fighter Squadron At RAF Lakenheath

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Here is how the future 495th Fighter Squadron’s flagship F-35A might look like. (Original photo by U.S. Air Force  Master Sgt. Eric Burks, edited by Stefano D’Urso/The Aviationist)

The “Valkyries” will be the first Europe-based USAF F-35 squadron, with the first aircraft expected to arrive at their new home later this year.

During an official ceremony at RAF Lakenheath on October 1, 2021, the U.S. Air Force in Europe reactivated the 495th Fighter Squadron as part of the 48th Fighter Wing. The press release mentions that the unit was activated at a specific, symbolic time, 8:49 and 50 second, which is exactly 30 years since the former 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron was redesignated as Fighter Squadron, shortly before its inactivation and the retirement of the F-111F Aardvark at RAF Lakenheath in 1991.

Last year, before the reactivation, it was decided to change the squadron’s historic nickname, the “Thundervarks”, to better fit its new ride, the F-35A Lightning II 5th gen aircraft. The 48th FW crowdsourced the new name, with over 700 different suggestions, with resulted in five finalists. Ultimately, “Valkyries” was chosen as the new nickname, while the unit’s motto remains the one of the 495th TFS.

“In Norse mythology, Valkyries are female figures who choose those that will live, or die, in battle,” the 48th Wing statement said. “RAF Lakenheath is in the East of England, an area with extensive Viking and Norse history.  Additionally, the 495th Fighter Squadron motto: “Mala Ipsa Nova” in Latin, means “Bad News Itself”. Both factors emphasize “Valkyries” as an extremely suitable nickname for the U.K.-based unit.”

Lt. Col. Ian D. McLaughlin has assumed command as the first commander since the squadron’s inactivation in 1991.   “Today is an exciting day. There has been a great deal of work done to get us this far, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done prior to getting jets this winter. The 495th has a proud history and we’re excited to take the guidon forward to start building the foundation for first USAF F-35As stationed in Europe.”

Among the guest who attended the ceremony there were some members of the original 495th TFS, including retired U.S. Air Force Col. James “Rusty” Russell, former 495th Fighter Squadron commander, who deactivated the squadron on December 13, 1991. In a symbolic handover, Col. Russell unfurled the squadron’s guidon and passed it to Col. Sean Lowe, 48th Operations Group commander, which then passed it to Lt. Col. McLaughlin as he assumed command. “I’m ecstatic about this,” said Russell. “I’m so pleased to represent the F-111 community that was here originally, and we are deeply appreciative of being able to witness and be a part of this today.”

- U.S. Air Force Officially Activates 495th Fighter Squadron At RAF LakenheathFile photo of two F-35As and two F-15Cs waiting at the end of the runway at RAF Lakenheath prior to a training sortie. (U.S. Air Force photo/Micah Garbarino)

The Valkyries do not currently own any aircraft, with the first F-35s scheduled to be delivered to Lakenheath by the end of the year, supposedly in December. The exact date is unknown, but initially the F-35 Demo Team reserved a date to be determined for an exhibition in December at RAF Lakenheath, which supposedly should have coincided with the delivery of the first aircraft, before it was removed during the summer.

An image released by the Air Force in April showed the forward fuselage section of the first aircraft to be assigned to Lakenheath, ready to begin the assembly process on the production line in Fort Worth (Texas) during a visit of Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The aircraft has been identified with the serial 19-5474 (c/n AF-302).The 495th Fighter Squadron is scheduled to be fully mission capable in 2022 with a total of 27 aircraft and 60 personnel.

With the introduction of the F-35A, the 495th FS will step the 48th Fighter Wing and USAFE into the 5th generation of air power advancing multi-domain capabilities and air superiority, according to the press release. “The 495th Fighter Squadron represents a huge step in refining interoperability,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander. “We’ve already started exercising these capabilities with our partners who have F-35s in theater, so we’ll be ready to get after it when the new aircraft arrive in December.”

As we already reported in the past here at The Aviationist, the F-35s have already deployed to Lakenheath in the recent past. In fact, F-35s deployed multiple times there since 2017 to train in Europe and allow pilots and maintainers to learn more about the European operating environment, as well as improving the interoperability with partners in the region. The presence of the F-35 during these deployments also allowed to test the infrastructure and support before the aircraft is permanently assigned to the British base.

The 495th FS will be joined later by another F-35 squadron, as the DoD said that, with the reorganization of the U.S. Air Force units across Europe, two squadrons with 24 F-35s each would be based at RAF Lakenheath. Lakenheath is the perfect base for the perfect weapon system in the perfect country,” said Col. Robert Novotny, 48th Fighter Wing commander in press release published on the Air Force website back then. The second F-35 has not been identified yet however, according to some sources, the “Grim Reapers” of the 493rd FS might trade their F-15Cs for the F-35, and Lakenheath would become home of two F-35 squadrons and two F-15E squadrons.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - U.S. Air Force Officially Activates 495th Fighter Squadron At RAF Lakenheath
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise
An F-35 Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 23, 2021. Red Flag was created to increase interoperability, leveraging common perspectives against shared threats. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miranda A. Loera)

Red Flag 21-3 saw the participation of all services from the U.S. Armed Forces to train next generation joint warfighting against more modern, stronger and dangerous threats, including Aggressor F-35s.

Blue air participants of Red Flag 21-3 found themselves fighting for the first time against F-35 Lightning II aggressor pilots, in one of the most complex exercises ever held at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) which included every domain of the modern warfighting. Red Flag exercises have been around for 46 years to tactically train fighter pilots but, as the threats posed by potential adversaries evolve, time has come for the exercise to evolve to its next generation.

“I have air-to-air aggressors. I have surface-to-air aggressors. I have space and information aggressors. The aggressor is the person who’s here to train blue by providing a realistic and robust adversary that they, being blue, have to actively fight against. They have to use every bit of the capabilities that they have and every bit of integration that they can compile to achieve what their intent is for that day”, said Col. Scott Mills, commander of the 57th Operations Group and an F-35 aggressor pilot. “Knowing what I know about those blue air capabilities and the blue air integration, my job is to pick that apart, to pull at the seams,” he continued. “The aggressor nation here is one of the best in the world at finding those niches, finding those gaps and seams, and absolutely punishing those mistakes that blue air makes.”

Lt. Col. Chris Finkenstadt, commander of the 64th Aggressor Squadron, said in the press release that Aggressor F-35s are being introduced during this Red Flag to expand upon the F-16 aggressors’ threat capabilities, so the exercise’s scenario more accurately represents advanced enemy fighters. It should be noted that F-35s already took the adversary role during past Red Flags, but the important difference here is that this time the 5th gen aircraft are operated by 64th Aggressor Squadron pilots, which are specialized in the threat replication thanks to their lengthy certification process where they gain a comprehensive understanding of U.S. adversaries and their tactics.

“What aggressors are able to present to them is a more challenging problem for blue air assault,” said Lt. Col. Finkenstadt. “The aggressors know the threat replication a little bit better, and they have studied the adversary and the way that the adversary would actually react to a specific situation. Based on our focus toward great power competition, we need to make sure that those guys are ready, and we do that by presenting the best possible atmosphere we can.”

The role of the F-35 as Aggressor during Red Flag is important as it will showcase what blue forces can do against low-observable type threats similar to what potential adversaries are developing, like the Russian Su-57 Felon and Su-75 Checkmate and the Chinese J-20 Mighty Dragon and FC-31 Gyrfalcon. The pilots of 4th gen aircraft might be at a disadvantage against those threats, so the F-35’s new Aggressor role should help to develop the tactics that will help pilots to fight and win against 5th gen threats.

“At the end of the day, my job is not to give blue an easy day. My job is to give blue the absolute toughest day that I can. And the way for me to do that is to bring the F-35 into the fight. And the F-35 is going to make it exceptionally difficult for blue to achieve their objectives. They’re going to need to take every bit of capability they have, every bit of integration they can, to achieve their intent,” said Col. Mills.

- Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag ExerciseAn F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, taxis in preparation for a mission during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 21, 2021. Red Flag takes place over the Nevada Test and Training Range and provides the warfighter a flexible, realistic and multidimensional battle space to conduct advanced training of U.S. military services and coalition forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Hicks)

Air Force officials did not provide precise info about the performance of the F-35 during the simulated engagements however, even if they did, those numbers would not make much sense as they are strictly dependent on the actual Rules Of Engagement (ROE) and the training scenario. In fact, the scenario and ROE might even put the fighters in situations that would never happen in a real engagement, just for the training value to have pilots ready for anything and prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“The first two days, blue’s nose gets pretty bloodied. And then by the end of week one, you start to see their lessons learned are getting passed around and they’re starting to figure things out a little bit,” said Lt. Col. Finkenstadt. “Then, day one or two of week two, they may get their nose bloodied again, because we tend to ramp it up a little bit. It usually takes a couple of days to start figuring out different game plans and how they want to package their forces to solve their problems.”

During exercises like Red Flag, the de-brief after each mission is invaluable and maybe even more important than the mission itself, as pilots and crews will go all over their flight planning again, taking a look at how they reacted, what the threat was, what they didn’t see and what they didn’t do. At the same time, the debriefing is where the new lessons learned will help figure out how to best combine everyone’s capability so the joint effort can successfully reach the mission objectives.

“We see walls come down between communities. We see stovepipes disappear. We see teams that have never before worked together, not only working together, but truly integrating their capabilities to achieve an end result. And I’ll tell you when blue air does that, it’s exceptionally difficult for red air to pull that game plan apart,” said Col. Mills. “At the end of the day, the truth is that no one of us, no one capability is outstanding or the best in the world. Our outstanding capability comes from the fact that we work together well through exercises like this. We operate across our joint and coalition partners to form one truly unstoppable blue force.”

And here we reached the second focal point of the latest Red Flag exercise, the joint forces. Red Flag-Nellis 21-3 involved only U.S. personnel, allowing the joint participants from other services and major commands to focus on details and sharpen their skillsets at a high classification and high tactical level against a stronger, more dangerous threat. Alongside the Air Force, the exercise included the Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force, Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves, with more than 100 airframes, including 40 5th generation aircraft.

“When you can bring joint units along with the Air Force in an environment like this, it’s no longer part-task training,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Stef, Red Flag commander. “It is full integration… We will better know and understand their service culture. Red Flag is the opportunity people get to come and start to build those relationships that will ultimately last a career.”

Lt. Col. Stef said that Red Flag 21-3 was focused on a Pacific region threat, an area where the great power competition continues to bring the tensions between China and the USA higher and higher. As mentioned in the press release, Red Flag is another way to prepare and allow participants to experience situations similar to those possible in the real-world, so the Pacific Air Forces brought to the exercise their insight about the different problem sets and unique perspectives of the Pacific region.

“Joint interoperability is important,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Tim Miller, VMFA-115 Marine Fighting Squadron commanding officer. “It allows us to practice how we are going to operate in the event that some real-world combat operation was to arise. That’s kind of where the Department of Defense is focusing now, which has put some additional emphasis on exercises such as Red Flag. It’s all about integration, and we’re still able to get that done in an extremely professional environment. For our maintainers to understand how the airfield operates and functions is a huge combat readiness enabler for us”.

- Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag ExerciseA U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet, assigned to the All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533, taxis out during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 3, 2021. Red Flag exercises are conducted on the Nevada Test and Training Range, which houses more than 12,000 square miles of air space and 2.9 million acres of land. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

However, while everyone is working to build the joint warfighting machine, someone has to give them some obstacles to face. While the 64th AGRS provides cutting-edge air-to-air threats, the 414th Combat Training Squadron makes air-to-ground employment more challenging with complex target areas, camouflage and concealment techniques across multiple spectrums and advanced surface-to-air threats.

Red Flag, in fact, unleashes the aggressor nation as they refine threat replication, apply advanced jamming and increase threat capabilities to maximize training in non-permissive environments. “Red Flag’s goal is to challenge, disrupt and if able, deny our communication and interoperability,” said Lt. Col. Evan Parr, 27th Fighter Squadron director of operations. “They force errors and punish mistakes. We get better by working through these problems in the air and as we debrief each fight.”

Another novelty of Red Flag 21-3 is the integration of space components into both blue and red forces. “As non-kinetics and Space itself, we’ve already infused with Global Positioning Systems, satellite communications (SATCOM) and bringing what we offer at Red Flag on the electronic warfare side,” said 2nd Lt. Joshua Miller, 16th Space Control Squadron. Miller explained that electronic attack and electronic surveillance assets provide an option to help monitor and detect Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) for the blue forces’ signals and its health, while also allowing to do the same against the red force’s EMIs.

The 414th CTS planned a multitude of joint space assets and tools to rival both red and blue forces during the exercise. “Without space-based capabilities, you lose access to GPS satellites, around the world communication, SATCOM, along with convenience,” said Maj. Paul Sula, 26th Space Aggressor Squadron standards and evaluation flight commander. “I believe there is a role to play, and space is a fantastic enabler.”

Meanwhile, this seems to be just the first of many renewed Red Flags, as the Air Force is planning to make more space at Nellis AFB for 5th gen fighters. The 4th generation A-10 and HH-60 squadrons will move from Nellis AFB to Davis-Monthan AFB (Arizona), starting in fiscal year 2022 and freeing additional range capacity necessary to test and train warfighters in 5th-generation aircraft.

“Our nation and joint force commanders depend on us to control and exploit the air. To do that, we need the additional range and aircraft maintenance infrastructure capacity at Nellis to fully test and train with our most advanced capabilities,” said Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command. “Our rescue squadrons will continue to train and hone their critical skills in support of operational missions from their new location.”

The move however will also allow personnel recovery units to take advantage of the synergy provided by collocating with other rescue units, as Davis-Monthan AFB already hosts HH-60s and HC-130s, in addition to A-10C squadrons. The A-10 Weapons Instructor Course and Test and Evaluation operations will transition to Davis-Monthan AFB in 2022. The HH-60 WIC, Test and combat coded units to include the 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 66th Rescue Squadron, 58th Rescue Squadron, the 34th Weapons Squadron and the 855th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron will move beginning in 2024.

By the way, the Air Force is planning to modernize and maintain only 218 of the current fleet of 281 combat-capable A-10s, according to Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Plans and Programs deputy chief of staff. Among the aircraft affected by the cuts there are 35 A-10C already based at Davis-Monthan AFB. The decision however is not final, as the retirement of the first 42 A-10s is subject to congressional approval.

“Under this plan, Davis-Monthan will play a critical role in reshaping U.S. airpower as home to the Air Force’s close air support and rescue Centers of Excellence,” said then Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth. “This realignment will consolidate all A-10 and HH-60 test, training, and weapon school activity at one location, allowing Airmen in these mission areas to train together for future threats.”

With these changes, the Air Force plans to transform Nellis AFB in a 5th Generation Center of Excellence. The base is currently on track to receive more F-35s to support F-35 operational test requirements and additional F-35As from Eglin AFB (Florida), as part of the reactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron, and additional F-22s for testing from Tyndall AFB (Florida), as well as further improving the Nevada Test and Training Range to train 5th generation systems in a live environment.

As we already reported here at The Aviationist, the Air Force has been working for a couple of years already to reactivate the 65th Aggressor Squadron. The unit will receive about a dozen early production non-combat capable 5th generation aircraft by 2022 (with the first possibly later this year) as Eglin AFB receive newly produced aircraft to replace them. While during Red Flag 21-3 the F-35s flown by the 64th AGRS pilots were in the standard USAF livery, the 57th Wing confirmed that a threat representative color scheme will be used on some of the Aggressor F-35s.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Two Russian Tu-160s And Four Flankers Intercepted By Italian F-35s, Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripens Over The Baltic

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Two Russian Tu-160s And Four Flankers Intercepted By Italian F-35s, Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripens Over The Baltic
One of the two Tu-160s involved in the June 15, 2021 mission over the Baltic. (Image credit: Russian MOD)

Two Russian Tu-160s, two Su-27s and two Su-35s were escorted at various stages by NATO and Swedish fighters in the Baltic region.

Two Russian Tu-160 (NATO reporting name “Blackjack”) bombers carried out an 8-hour mission over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea on Jun. 15, 2021. Interestingly, the two “White Swan” missile-carrier bombers were escorted by two Su-35S aircraft of the Aerospace Force and two Su-27 fighters of the Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation during their trip.

The Tu-160s belong to the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment stationed at Engels-2 Air Base in Saratov, Oblast, southwestern Russia, the only unit to fly the 14-16 Blackjack bombers believed to be operational with the Russian Aerospace Forces.

The Russian Long Range Aviation (LRA) mission in the Baltic region caused several NATO aircraft in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duty to scramble: Italian Air Force F-35As, Royal Danish Air Force F-16s and Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripens were scrambled to identify and shadow the Russian “package” as it progressed across the region.

The crews of Russian long-range aircraft regularly perform flights over the neutral waters of the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the Black and Baltic Seas and the Pacific Ocean, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

Today’s intercept comes less than a week after the first close encounter between an Italian F-35 and a Russian Su-30SM escorting an An-12 transport aircraft flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast, off Estonia.

As already explained, the Italian F-35A involved in the intercept are two of the four Lightning II aircraft, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, that are currently stationed at Amari, in Estonia, where they arrived on Apr. 30, 2021, to carry out the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission. The Italian F-35s, operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia, in support of “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), will remain in Estonia for the BAP mission until August.

As a matter of fact, no photographs nor videos of the most recent intercepts were released by NATO and Italian Air Force. However, it is possible that some images will be made available in the next few days (as happened for the F-35’s first intercept in support of BAP on May 14, whose photos were cleared many days after the event), as the number of intercepts increases.

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Two Russian Tu-160s And Four Flankers Intercepted By Italian F-35s, Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripens Over The Baltic
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.

Check Out These Awesome Shots Of Four RNoAF F-35A Jets Refueling For The First Time From A French C-135 Tanker

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Check Out These Awesome Shots Of Four RNoAF F-35A Jets Refueling For The First Time From A French C-135 Tanker
Four RNoAF F-35A “breaking” (All images: EMA COM)

The aerial refueling of four RNoAF (Royal Norwegian Air Force) F-35A Lightning II stealth aircraft from a French Air Force C-135FR provided an opportunity for some great shots.

Last week, a C-135 from Air Refueling Squadron (ERV) 4/31 “Sologne” from Istres Air Base 125, carried out an aerial refueling mission using the flying boom to refuel, for the very first time, four F-35As from the Royal Norwegian Air Force supporting NATO Icelandic Air policing.

“This mission underscores the importance of operational cooperation between two countries allowing, on the one hand, the maintenance of crew qualifications and, on the other hand, capacity building for interoperability,” said the French Air Force on their website The principle of refueling with the flying boom does not apply to French fighter planes. In fact, the French C-135 normally use the flying boom with a hose and drogue system to refuel the French fighters, which are equipped with an IFR (In-Flight Refueling) probe instead of a receptacle (like the one of the F-35A). “However, expanding the in-flight refueling capabilities of French squadrons to foreign nations equipped with this system is essential”.

For instance, the C-135FR aircraft used the flying boom to refuel the B-52 bomber in 2017.

The joint mission allowed the French Air Force to take some great images of the receivers.

The French and the Royal Norwegian Air Force have already taken part in joint multinational exercises such as the “Trident Juncture” in 2018, or the “Artic Challenge Exercise” (ACE ). In June 2021, a new edition of the ACE should also take place in Bodø, in Norway, with the participation of the 30e Escadre de Chasse.

For what concerns the Norwegian F-35s, four Lightning II jets have deployed to Keflavik, Iceland to carry out the NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing mission. It’s the second time the Norwegian Lightnings deploy there to perform Quick Reaction Alert duties in support of NATO’s Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs (ASIC IPPN) mission.

As shown in the photos, the RNoAF F-35A are equipped with a drag chute pod: Norwegian F-35s are unique compared to other nations’ F-35s as they are the only ones at the moment to use a drag chute during landing, housed in a special fairing on the upper rear fuselage between the vertical tails. It can be used to rapidly decelerate Norwegian F-35s after landing on icy runways under windy conditions.

RNoAF F 35 refuel 3 - Check Out These Awesome Shots Of Four RNoAF F-35A Jets Refueling For The First Time From A French C-135 Tanker
Four RNoAF F-35 as seen from the C-135FR boom station. (All images: EMA COM)

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Check Out These Awesome Shots Of Four RNoAF F-35A Jets Refueling For The First Time From A French C-135 Tanker
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.

Italian F-35A and B Carry Out First Simultaneous Drop Of (Inert) GBU-12 Laser Guided Bombs

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Italian F-35A and B Carry Out First Simultaneous Drop Of (Inert) GBU-12 Laser Guided Bombs
Italian F-35A and B drop GBU-12s during the OT&E. (Image credit: ItAF)

For the very first time, the Italian Air Force F-35A and F-35B carried out a simultaneous drop of GBU-12 LGBs.

On Jan. 28, 2021, the Italian Air Force two F-35A and one F-35B assigned to the 32° Stormo (Wing) based at Amendola Air Base, deployed to Decimomannu Air Base, Sardinia, home of the RSSTA/AWTI (Reparto Sperimentale e di Standardizzazione Tiro Aereo/Air Weapons Training Installation) of the Italian Air Force, have conducted a mission that involved the use of inert weapons on the PISQ (Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra – Salto di Quirra Joint Range), an EW (Electronic Warfare) range located in central eastern Sardinia, just a few minutes flight time distance from “Deci”.

The mission, flown in so-called “Beast Mode”, was carried out as part of the OT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) of the 5th generation weapon system, and allowed to test the simultaneous drop of LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) from the F-35A and F-35B, and marked the very first time the Italian STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Lightning II aircraft dropped a GBU-12.

The activity involved personnel from both the 32° Stormo and the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (the Italian Air Force Test Wing) and was carried out during the deployment to Decimomannu of the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32nd Wing, so as to assess the ability of the unit to operate in “Split Ops”, with aircraft and personnel generating sorties both at the MOB (Main Operating Base) and the DOB (Deployment Operating Base).

The Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) released the first photos of the F-35A and B during training mission in “Beast Mode”, with internal and external weapons for the very first time in November 2020.  The F-35A carried four GBU-12s LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) on the external pylons and two AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles in the weapons bay; the F-35B, airframe serialled MM7453/32-14, flying in STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) mode, carried four GBU-12s. As we explained back then, that was this the first time the aircraft flew in “Beast Mode” as well as the first time the Italian F-35s were photographed with external loads.

As already explained in details, “Beast Mode” is not an official or technical term, but it has become a pretty common way an F-35 configuration involving both internal and external loads has been dubbed. […] As opposed to a “First Day of War” loadout, in which the F-35 would carry weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability, the “Third Day of War” configuration is expected to be used from the third day of an air campaign when, theoretically, enemy air defense assets (including sensors, air defense missile and gun systems and enemy aircraft) have been degraded by airstrikes (conducted also by F-35s in “Stealth Mode”) and the battlespace has become more permissive: in such a scenario the F-35 no longer relies on Low-Observability for survivability so it can shift to carrying large external loads. These conditions are not always met. For instance, LO was not needed when the F-35A was called to carry out the first air strike in the Middle East, nor when the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B carried out the first air strike in Afghanistan.

According to the latest plans, Italy is procuring 90 F-35s: 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force.

F 35 dropping GBU 12s 2 - Italian F-35A and B Carry Out First Simultaneous Drop Of (Inert) GBU-12 Laser Guided Bombs
Two F-35As and one F-35B during the GBU-12 drop activity in Sardinia. (Image credit: ItAF)

The Italian Air Force considers the F-35B and its STOVL capability a crucial component of a larger expeditionary system that makes the Air Force capable to project power. Here’s what the ItAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Alberto Rosso, said during the presentation of the F-35B at Pantelleria in July last year:

“This capability is extremely important to face new scenarios or situations like the one we had during the Gulf War. Our Tornado jets were deployed to an airbase [Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE] that was far away from the area of operations: this implied that our aircraft had to fly several hours and carry out several aerial refuelings before reaching their targets.

The ability to operate from shorter runways can allow the selection of a closer airbase and solve the problem. In terms of flexibility, just think that in Africa there are about 100 runways that have a length between 2,800 and 3,000 meters but there are 20 times as many runways between 1,000 and 1,500 meters in length. Being able to use short runways allows you to multiply your ability to deploy where needed, in a more convenient and faster way, especially closer to the area of operation. Having an aircraft that is capable of taking off from shorter runways allows incredible flexibility even in those scenarios that are currently only barely conceivable. In case of conflict, aircraft that are able to operate from shorter runways can also be dispersed to increase their survivability.

This flexibility to operate from bare/austere runways or even highways makes the air power more unpredictable and represents a fundamental capability in any scenario. For this reason, after carefully studying all the scenarios and costs, the Italian Air Force has identified, as done by other air arms, a mixed fleet of F-35A and B aircraft, as the most economically convenient and effective configuration.”

Dealing with the Italian Navy, the Cavour aircraft carrier is about to start qualification with the new F-35B, the STOVL variant, of the Lightning II jet. The flagship of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) is set to reach Naval Station Norfolk in mid-February to start F-35B qualifications with the U.S. Marine Corps. After becoming an aircraft carrier qualified with the 5th generation STOVL aircraft, one of the steps required to achieve the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) of the aircraft carrier with the new jet, the 27,000-ton ship will set sail back to Italy, where the aircraft carrier will embark an Italian Navy F-35B, the third to be delivered to the Italian naval service: the first two F-35B jets, assembled at the Italian FACO (Final Assembly and Check Out) in Cameri were handed over to the Marina Militare in 2018 and 2019. These were then transferred to MCAS Beaufort, home of the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B pilot training.

A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region
Two F-35A of the RNoAF as seen from the Bone cockpit. (Image via 34th BS). In the box, the route flown over Sweden and Norway (Image credit: @FireFlying11 using Skyvector).

On May 20, two B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, conducted a mission to the Nordic region. The mission, one in a series of long-range strategic Bomber Task Force missions to Europe, is worth of note for at least a couple of interesting details: first, it marked the first time B-1s flew over Sweden to integrate with Swedish Gripens while conducting close-air support training with Swedish Joint Terminal Attack Controller ground teams at Vidsel Range; second, the B-1s integrated with Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35s to fly tactical sorties and conduct a low-approach over Ørland Air Station, Norway, the home of the RoNAF’s recently operational F-35 fleet.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe & Air Forces Africa released some images of the Bones flying in formation with both the Swedish and the Norwegian combat aircraft, but we can show you the same integration operations as seen from the cockpit of one of the B-1 Lancers. In fact, we obtained the cool shots taken by a B-1’s WSO that you can find in this post.

B 1 over Sweden and Norway 2 - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region A JAS 39 Gripen flying alongside the B-1 over Sweden. (All images via 34th BS)

All but one was taken with his personal mobile phone (Samsung GS20 in wide angle mode) through the DSO (Defensive Systems Officer) window on the left aft side of the BONE – he was the DSO for this mission. There is also one shot  that was he took through the window on the OSO (Offensive Systems Officer) position on the right aft side of the BONE.

B 1 over Sweden and Norway 3 - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region This was taken through the OSO (Offensive Systems Officer) window on the right aft side of the BONE.

Here’s the route the B-1s flew on May 20, once again provided by our close friend Arjen Peters.

Bone 31 May 20 full - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region The route flown by the two B-1Bs on May 20 (Image credit: @FireFlying11 using Skyvector).

The WSO is a member of the 34th Bomb Squadron. The 34BS likes to be called “The World Famous Thunderbirds” since their lineage (1917) predates the Thunderbirds demo team (1953). The 34BS TBirds, along with their sister squadron the 37th Bomb Squadron “Tigers” are two of three squadrons at Ellsworth AFB, SD, that share “Doolittle’s Raiders” heritage – both under AFGSC. The 89th Attack Squadron (89ATKS – MQ-9 Reapers) is an ACC tenant at Ellsworth and was also part of the 1942 Doolittle Raid. The fourth Doolittle’ Raiders squadron, the 95th Reconnasance Squadron (95RS) “Kicking Mules”, are currently at Beale AFB, CA.

During their Nordic region mission, the B-1s (using radio callsign “BONE 31-32”) were supported by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft belonging to the 100th ARW (Air Refueling Wing) from RAF Mildenhall, UK.

B 1 over Sweden and Norway - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region A Gripen refuels from a KC-135 of the 100th ARW from RAF Mildenhall, UK.
B 1 over Sweden and Norway 4 - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region A 100th ARW KC-135 supported the mission.

Here are some more images:

B 1 over Sweden and Norway 5 - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region A RNoAF F-16 (the camera ship) can be seen in this photo.
B 1 over Sweden and Norway 6 - A B-1 Lancer’s WSO Sent Us These Pix Of RNoAF F-35s and Swedish Gripens Escorting The Bone Over The Nordic Region Two F-35As escort the Bone over Norway on May 20, 2020. Both the aircraft are equipped with the special fairing on the upper rear fuselage between the vertical tails that houses the drag chute used to rapidly decelerate Norwegian F-35s after landing on icy runways under windy conditions.


Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)
15-5202/HL nicknamed “Nighthawk” landing in Lajes on May 2, 2020. (All images: APS-Associação Portugal Spotters.)

On May 2, 2020, six U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II jets, landed at Lajes Field, on their way back from a tour of duty in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in the Middle East.

Flying as “TABOR 91-96” and supported by 100th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135R Stratotanker “BLUE 43” (needless to say, just one of the tankers supporting the jets), the F-35 cell arrived at the Portuguese Air Force base in Terceira Island, Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal, from Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE. 

F 35A Lajes 5202 - Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)
In this photo, 15-5202/HL “Tabor96” with highlighted, the nickname of the aircraft (“Nighthawk”).

For the records, all the jets were drawn from a pool of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, squadrons. Here’s the list with the new nicknames (most probably applied during the deployment, as happened to the F-15Es):

15-5195/HL “Tabor91” 4FS “Fightin´ Fuujins” nicknamed “Reaper”
15-5199/HL “Tabor92” 421FS “Black Widows” nicknamed “Bone Saw”
15-5143/HL “Tabor93” 4FS “Fightin´ Fuujins” nicknamed “Iron Maiden”
15-5170/HL “Tabor94” 34FS “Rude Rams” nicknamed “Miss Behavin´”
15-5183/HL “Tabor95” 4FS “Fightin´Fuujins” nicknamed “Thor”
15-5202/HL “Tabor96” 421FS “Black Widows” nicknamed “Nighthawk”

F 35A Lajes 5183 - Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)
15-5183/HL “Thor”.
F 35A Lajes 5195 - Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)
15-5195/HL “Reaper”.

Tanker support was provide by 57-2605/D “Blue43” KC135R 100ARW/USAFE named “NKAWTG Biggabird” (NKAWTG are the initials for “Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas”).

KC 135R Lajes - Hill Air Force Base’s F-35As Return Home From Middle East Deployment (With Unique Nicknames)
KC-135R 57-2605/D landing at Lajes Field.

The 388th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, the US Air Force’s first combat coded F-35 unit, deployed its F-35As to Al Dhafra at the end of November 2019, just two weeks after the end of their first combat deployment. The deployed group was made up of active duty pilots from the 34th FS and Reserve pilots from the 466th FS of the 419th FW (based at Hill AFB), as well as a mix of active duty and reserve personnel for maintenance and other support roles.

During their stay in theater, flying directly from Al Dhafra, the F-35s of the 388th FW took also part in the first bilateral training with the Israeli Air Force F-35Is in the Israeli airspace. As reported, the exercise took place in the air only, no face-to-face meetings between Israeli and U.S. teams were carried out: briefing and debriefing were conducted on secure network connections as a consequence of COVID19 pandemic.


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