A small squadron of the US Air Force’s F-35As will fly to Europe this weekend for training with NATO allies, marking the F-35A’s first international deployment.
As part of a long-planned effort within the European Reassurance Initiative, the squadron will train for several weeks with other US and NATO aircraft in Europe, the US Defense Department says in a 14 April statement. The USAF plans to release more information about the training effort once the aircraft arrive in Europe, according to the statement.
“This training deployment signifies an important milestone and natural progression of the F-35 program, allowing the Air Force to further demonstrate the operational capabilities of the fifth generation fighter aircraft,” the DOD states. “It also assists in refining requirements for eventually basing the F-35A in Europe, which is scheduled to receive the aircraft in the early 2020s.”
The training marks the first international deployment for the USAF’s F-35A variant, but not the first overseas operation for the Joint Strike Fighter programme. In January, the US Marine Corps’ F-35B fighters flew to the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in Iwakuni, Japan.
The European deployment does not likely signal new sabre rattling toward Russia from the Trump administration. For months, air force officials have hinted at a European deployment. In December, then-USAF Secretary Deborah Lee James indicated the F-35 would fly to Europe later this year. As early as the F-35A’s initial operational capability announcement in August, then chief of Air Combat Command Gen Herbert Carlisle told reporters he would like to deploy the F-35A in both the European and Pacific theater within 18 months. Carlisle also mentioned deploying the aircraft to the Middle East if needed.
“There's a couple of things, some of our partners or allies are interested in seeing the airplane operate,” Carlisle said. “Many of our partners and allies are interested in interoperability. So I think when the F-35 deploys to European and pacific theater, it will give our allies and partners confidence in the airframe.”
Carlisle also noted that sending the F-35 to Europe did not indicate provocation toward Russia, but rather reassurance for NATO allies.
“From my perspective I think it sends a good signal,” he said. “When you send F-22s to the European theater last fall and obviously there’s great messaging, great capabilities that go along with that and I think sending F-35s...reassures friends and allies and it is a deterrent to potential adversaries.”