Four Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighters belonging to the US Air Force (USAF) have arrived in Poland as part of NATO’s effort to bolster air and missile defences along the alliance’s eastern frontier.

US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) on 2 April said the aircraft landed at Poland’s Lask air base the day prior under an operation NATO calls “air shielding”.

The four F-35s, which are replacing a similarly-sized flight of USAF Lockheed F-16s from Germany, are permanently assigned to the US-operated base at RAF Lakenheath in the UK.

“Operating from forward locations allows US Air Force airmen to live, train and operate alongside European counterparts while enabling NATO’s collective defence capabilities,” USAFE says.

Home to the service’s 48th Fighter Wing, Lakenheath currently hosts four USAF fighter squadrons – two operating F-35As and two operating Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles. Washington leases the Suffolk facility from the UK government.

USAF F-35 RAF Lakenheath c USAF

Source: US Air Force

The US Air Force operates two squadrons of F-35A fighters from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, alongside two squadrons of Boeing F-15Es

The deployment is not the first time American F-35s have operated from Poland. F-35As from Hill AFB in Utah landed at Powidz air base in 2019 under USAFE-led exercises testing the ability of pilots and crew to function away from the USA’s main facilities.

“This capability is critical for a timely and coordinated response, if and when called upon,” USAFE notes.

NATO launched the ongoing air shielding mission in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alliance headquarters describes the mission as “purely defensive”, noting it encompasses an increased air and missile defence posture along the eastern flank.

An F-35 Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, taxis to a hangar at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England c USAF

Source: US Air Force

Washington leases RAF Lakenheath from the UK government

“Allies have deployed more fighter jets and ground-based air and missile defence systems to protect Allies along the eastern flank against possible air and missile threats,” Brussels says.

In 2022, the air shielding mission saw USAF Lockheed F-22s operate from Lask alongside Polish air force F-16s and Eurofighter Typhoons from the Italian air force.

Poland is in the process of acquiring its own F-35As, having signed an agreement in 2020 covering 32 aircraft at a price of $4.6 billion. The US-based military airframer began producing aircraft for Warsaw in 2023.

At the time, Lockheed said it planned to deliver the first Polish F-35 in 2024, with that aircraft initially being used to train Polish crews inside the USA and then arriving in Poland in 2026.

That timeline may be impacted by the Pentagon’s ongoing hold on F-35 deliveries, as Lockheed works to flight-certify the jet’s latest technical configuration. Lockheed says it has continued to produce F-35s at the full-rate during the pause.

USAF F-35s at Lask Air Base Poland 2019 c USAF

Source: US Air Force

Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters from the US Air Force arrived in Poland for the first time in 2019, landing at Lask air base