The commanders’ jets are the latest additions to the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath.
At around 18.00LT on Friday Apr. 15, 2022, two F-35A aircraft, both sporting the squadron commander markings for the 493rd Fighter Squadron ‘Reapers’ and 495th Fighter Squadron ‘Valkyries’ landed at RAF Lakenheath, UK. The two aircraft in question, coming from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where they were spotted during the test flights preceding the delivery are the airframes 19-5493 and 19-5495.
We welcomed two new additions to our #F35 fleet! Beyond providing #FifthGen capability, these two aircraft will serve as the flagships of the 493rd and 495th Fighter Squadrons. ✈️🗽#WeAreLiberty #OwnTheSkies #ReadyAF@HQUSAFEAFAF @usairforce @US_EUCOM @NATO @theF35JPO pic.twitter.com/yzVcFvJN3g
— RAF Lakenheath (@48FighterWing) April 19, 2022
According to our contributor Martin Fox, who was at the base home of the 48th Fighter Wing, and took the photographs of the aircraft as they arrived at their new airfield, these jets had tried to make the transatlantic crossing for at least two weeks but had suffered delays caused by tanker issues and unfavourable weather over the Atlantic. For the ferry flight, the new flagship aircraft were supported by KC-135R, serial 62-3502, belonging to the 22nd ARW (Air Refueling Wing), from McConnell Air Force Base, Texas, which also arrived at RAF Lakenheath as RAF Mildenhall was closed for Good Friday holiday. Unfortunately for the tanker crew, after the long crossing, the Stratotanker had to hold for around an hour before landing as the runways cables needed to be de-rigged once the fighters had safely landed.
As we have already explained in a previous post, the “Grim Reapers” will become the second Europe-based U.S. F-35 squadron, following their colleagues of the 495th FS “Valkyries”, which received the first F-35s in December 2021. This way, RAF Lakenheath will have two F-15E Strike Eagle squadrons, the 492nd FS “Bolars” and the 494th FS “Panthers”, and two F-35A squadrons, the 493rd FS “Grim Reapers” and the 495th FS “Valkyries”. Each squadron will operate with at least two dozen F-35s.
The flagship aircraft of the 493rd FS, with serial 19-5493/AF-321, will probably operate with the 495th until the Reapers start to re-equip with the F-35A in the future. The “Grim Reapers” were the last to fly the “legacy” Eagles in Europe after more than 45 years of F-15A/B/C/D Eagle operations in the Old Continent. They completed their NATO enhanced Air Policing mission at Łask Air Base, Poland, on Feb. 28, 2022.
U.S. Forces Conduct A New Multi-Domain Exercise With F-16s, KC-135s, P-8A And RQ-4B Over The Black Sea
The new Multi-Domain exercise follows the lead of the last summer’s drills, while continuing to increase the presence of the United States in the Black Sea region.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa led a Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) exercise, designed to train U.S. and ally forces to integrate, operate and communicate while executing all-domain targeting operations, over the Black Sea on January 14, 2020. The exercise, dubbed “Prime Accord”, saw the participation also of the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, U.S Naval Forces Europe/U.S. 6th Fleet, U.S. Army Europe and Africa, U.S. Strategic Command and the Romanian Air Force.
“Our forward presence and strong bilateral relationship with our friend and ally, Romania, ensures our ability to respond to any threat with confidence,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander. “Enhancing our joint lethality is crucial to preparing Airmen to execute the mission.”
A number of aircraft were confirmed being involved in the drill, some of them visible on flight tracking websites through ADS-B and MLAT:
- A P-8A Poseidon from NAS Sigonella assigned to either Patrol Squadrons VP-9 Golden Eagles or VP-46 Grey Knights (currently deployed there), reportedly Bu.No. 168760, transmitting with Mode-S hex code AE67F4;
- Two KC-135R from RAF Mildenhall assigned to the 100th Aerial Refueling Wing, QID734, QID751, with AF Ser. No. 63-8878 and 61-0292, respectively;
- Two U.S. Air Force F-16CM-40s from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base assigned to the 555th FS “Triple Nickel”, reportedly transmitting the callsigns NICKEL 61 and 62;
- Four Romanian Air Force F-16A-MLU from the 86th Air Base in Borcea;
- A RQ-4B Global Hawk from NAS Sigonella which was tracked with the usual callsign FORTE 10, reportedly AF Ser. No. 11-2049, transmitting with Mode-S hex code AE54B6.
USAF Global Hawk FORTE10
US Navy P8 Poseidon AE67F4 pic.twitter.com/xEZ2i1eavQ
— Manu Gómez (@GDarkconrad) January 14, 2021
14 JAN 2021#USAF aviation activity observed today in the BS Reg-n:
U-2 (BENT-01) from RAF Akrotiri
RQ-4 (FORTE-10) from NAS Sigonella
2×KC-135s (QUID-751/734) from RAF Mildenhall
2×F-16s (NICKEL-61/62) from Aviano AB
F-16s are of particular interest, as pos. carriers of B61-3/-4 pic.twitter.com/WzPm3nMmZn
— Cyber Diver (@Some_Sun) January 14, 2021
Some sources mentioned also the possible participation of a U-2S Dragon Lady forward deployed at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, but this has not been confirmed by neither the U.S. nor Romania. Available MLAT tracks show however that a U-2 did indeed depart from Akrotiri that day, but it was headed to the Middle East. U-2s deployed there can often be tracked while departing for their missions and, sometimes, while descending during the approach and landing back on the island.
The main protagonists of the exercise were the F-16 Fighting Falcons of the 31st Fighter Wing and the F-16s of the Romanian Air Force. The U.S. F-16s took off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, and, supported by the two KC-135 tankers, flew to the Black Sea where they conducted training scenarios utilizing AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM) employment tactics, while the RoAF F-16s provided fighter escort. The drill took place in front of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s coasts, where the aircraft were tracked circling, possibly while performing Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR).
The Poseidon was flying its usual ISR patrol (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) west of the Crimean Peninsula, while the Global Hawk initially flew its usual ISR patrol around Crimea and then proceeded to establish a new patrol over Georgia. Similar patrols were tracked also in December, possibly in the aftermath of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Forte10 GlobalHawk RQ-4B is right there as well. pic.twitter.com/LoNk5AErLb
— IntelAssess (@812Z_) January 14, 2021
The exercise was coordinated by a joint team at the Romanian Control and Reporting Center, where the 606th Air Control Squadron from the 31st FW and the 1st Combat Communications Squadron from the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, were deployed to assist in providing tactical command and control together with the RoAF personnel.
“The Romanian CRC participation bloomed into additional U.S. personnel deploying to Romania to employ C2 with the Romanians,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Alex Riseborough, air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. “It was a U.S. first and a big step for our bilateral Air Force partnership with the Romanians.”
This exercise is highly similar to another one conducted last summer, when Aviano’s F-16s again simulated the usage of the JASSM during multi-domain operations. Even if just simulated, the employment of stand-off weapons like the JASSM in the Black Sea region is highly significant.
The AGM-158 JASSM (with a range in excess of 200 nautical miles) and its extended-range version, the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER) with a standoff distance of over 500 nautical miles, are GPS-guided radar-evading cruise missiles with 2,250-lbs penetrator/blast fragmentation warhead. The JASSM cruise missile employs precision routing and guidance in adverse weather, day or night, using an infrared seeker in addition to the anti-jam GPS to find and destroy high-value, well-defended targets.
In the same period, B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing, based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, performed a Bomber Task Force Europe mission over the same area, focused on training on the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability with the AGM-158C LRASM against unspecified new emerging threats.
The AGM-158C LRASM, based on the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, is the new low-observable anti-ship cruise missile developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. The missile, armed with a 1000 lb (454 kg) penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead, is capable of performing all-weather precision routing and guidance through pre-planned waypoints, before transitioning to mid-course guidance through its multimodal sensor and later to low altitude navigation for target identification and final approach. The LRASM is also equipped with Electronic Support Measure (ESM), Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for threat avoidance and target recognition.
Back to last week’s exercise, the press release did not provide many details about the ground assets’ involvement. SOCEUR deployed conventional and Special Operations Forces to integrate training with Close Air Support (CAS) missions and simulated strikes on targets of interest. The Army deployed the 41st Field Artillery Brigade and the 10th Army Air Missile Defense Command, but their role was not specified.
In November, the 41st FAB deployed two M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Romania using an MC-130J Commando II and a C-130 Hercules, performing what is called as a HIMARS Rapid Infiltration (HIRAIN), and firing at targets in the Black Sea during a joint exercise with Romanian forces. It is not known if they performed in a similar role last week.
The United States are increasing their military presence in Romania, not only with joint exercises, but also with deployed forces. This month the U.S. Air Force announced that an unspecified number of MQ-9 Reaper drones, accompanied by approximately 90 Airmen, are now at the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii Air Base, from where they will conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in support of NATO operations in the region.
The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy performed a joint exercise in the Black Sea on Aug. 2, 2020 focusing on realistic integration, operation and communication between surface and air assets to protect the maritime domain. The drill was not announced in advance, causing some curiosity among online flight trackers who started observing multiple military aircraft (somehow unusually flying a training sortie on a Sunday morning in Europe) on their way to the Black Sea.
The exercise, later confirmed by the U.S. Sixth Fleet, was centered around USS Porter DDG-78, an Aegis BMD-equipped (Ballistic Missile Defense) guided-missile destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class, permanently based at Naval Air Station Rota (Spain) together with other three destroyers as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The ship, which also replaced its Phalanx Close-In Weapon System’s (CIWS) 20mm M61 gun with a SeaRAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) Anti-Ship Missile Defense System in response to the Russian naval threat, was one of the two destroyers that back in 2017 launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against Shayrat Airbase in Syria.
A number of aircraft were involved in the drill, almost all visible on flight tracking websites through ADS-B and MLAT:
KC-135Rs: QID943/58-0100, QID944/63-8878, QID945/57-1440, 943&944 returning to Rota, 945 returning to Mildenhall; At least one F-16 COBRA14/Mode-S hex 15C4DE; P-8A 168760/Mode-S hex AE6840. screens from #planeradar, #RadarBox24, #FlightAware
— Stefano D’Urso (@stedur93) August 2, 2020
Not many details were given about the exercise, except for the fact that it occurred in international waters and airspace and involved tactical maneuvering and communications, differently from the recent Exercise Sea Breeze 2020 where Aviano’s F-16 trained Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM) cruise missile tactics or the B-1B bombers that trained on Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability in June.
What was really interesting is the fact that the F-16s were flying with live air-to-air ordnance, which is not usual during training. The live missiles could be identified in the photos by the yellow and brown bands, for the live warhead and the live rocket motor, respectively. More specifically, all four jets were each armed with two AIM-120C/D AMRAAMs, one AIM-9X Sidewinder, two 370-gallon external fuel tanks and the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP).
Cmdr. Craig Trent, Commanding Officer of USS Porter, said in the official press release: “The purpose of this training event was to exercise command and control in a joint training environment with our U.S. Air Force brothers and sisters to increase our tactical proficiency, and Porter’s crew did just that. This training enabled us to continue to build on our combined capability to quickly and effectively respond to any threats in the complex maritime environment.”
From what we could gather through online flight tracking, two tankers, QID943 and QID944 departed from Morón Air Base in Spain (where they returned at the end of the drill), executed a Rendez-Vous with the F-16s, departed their homebase at Aviano AB, in the Speedy Area over the Adriatic Sea, then flew over Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The third tanker, QID945, departed from RAF Mildenhall and executed an RV with the other aircraft over the Black Sea.
The drill possibly took place in front of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s coasts, where the aircraft were tracked circling, possibly performing Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR). The Poseidon was flying its usual ISR patrol (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) west of the Crimean Peninsula, while the Reaper was not publicly visible.
A United States Air Force KC-135R (🇺🇸57-1440 as #QID945) returning to 🇬🇧RAF Mildenhall after refueling 🇮🇹#Aviano-based American F-16s over the Black Sea, spotted over 🇳🇱the Netherlands. https://t.co/APYezIdtL8 pic.twitter.com/JhUcAvFd3T
— Soesterberg Air Base Spotter (@EHSBspotter) August 2, 2020
— nde (@5472_nde) August 2, 2020
As a side note, since we mentioned the Speedy Area, on July 22, 2020 a KC-46A Pegasus from McConnell AFB (which was deployed for a few days in Europe visiting Ramstein AB and RAF Mildenhall) conducted in that area the first AAR mission in support of the USAFE (U.S. Air Force in Europe) command with Aviano’s F-16s. Another similar mission followed a day later.
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) July 22, 2020
The U.S. Air Force will relocate the 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base to Aviano Air Base
As you may already know, the United States are planning to drastically reduce military personnel currently stationed in Germany. Among the units affected by the reductions we can find the 480th Fighter Squadron “Warhawks” of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base. The unit will in fact move its 28 F-16CM-50s to Aviano Air Base in Italy, where they will join the 510th FS “Buzzards” and 555th “Triple Nickel” of the 31st FW, flying the F-16CM-40.
The move was announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper on July 29, 2020 during a joint briefing with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). According to Esper about 12000 troops will move out of Germany starting from the next weeks, with 6400 of those returning to the US, leaving only 24000 troops in the country.
The 100th Air Refueling Wing and 352nd Special Operations Wing were scheduled to relocate to Ramstein and Spangdahlem respectively in the near future, prompting the closure of their current homebase RAF Mildenhall, but now this relocation has been canceled and both units will remain in the UK. Ramstein Air Base will not undergo any additional changes. Initially the 480th FS was rumored to be relocating to Poland, but this was never confirmed.
Esper was quoted saying during the briefing “It is important to note that in NATO’s 71-year history, the size, composition and disposition of U.S. forces in Europe has changed many times. As we’ve entered a new era of great-power competition we are now at another inflection point in NATO’s history. I am confident the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it.”
According to the Department of Defense, the relocation of the troops is also a further implementation of the dynamic force employment that would see units abandoning permanent bases, vulnerable to attacks, and be ready to quickly deploy where needed. Periodically, unit based both in Germany and in the US will continue to deploy to different locations in Europe, a move also dictated by the National Defense Strategy to counter Russia (as in this case) and China.
Along with the Warhawks, ground units and command centers are being moved as well: among those we can find the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (a brigade-sized Stryker infantry and cavalry unit), US European Command (EUCOM), US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Special Operations Command-Europe and Special Operations Command-Africa.