Key point: The F-35s on patrol will get to test their capabilities against Russian fighters trying to harass NATO airspace.
Italy has become the first country to deploy F-35 stealth fighters for NATO’s air-policing missions.
Italian F-35As belonging to the Italian air force’s 13° Gruppo, 32° Stormo are on track to take over the air-policing mission in Iceland, David Cenciotti reported at The Aviationist on Sept. 25, 2019.
“The Italian aircraft, that have already deployed to Keflavik International Airport, from their homebase at Amendola air base in southeastern Italy, will start flying familiarisation sorties in the next few days,” Cenciotti wrote. “After achieving the NATO certification they will start quick-reaction alert duties.”
“The F-35s, were accompanied by a KC-767A tanker, a C-130J and a P-72A maritime patrol aircraft,” Cenciotti added, citing data from flight-tracking websites.
F-35s surely will become regular fixtures in NATO deployments. Several NATO countries besides Italy are acquiring F-35s, including the United States, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. Spain has expressed interest in the stealth fighter. Canada seems likely to acquire the type.
Under the air-policing scheme, NATO’s larger members deploy fighters in order to patrol the air space of smaller members that lack their own fighters. The main air-policing destinations are Iceland and the Baltic States. F-15s, F-16s and Typhoons have handled most of the air-policing deployments in the last decade.
The deployments are significant because they put NATO fighters in close contact with Russian warplanes flying along Russia’s western frontier and in North Atlantic air space. It probably won’t be long before NATO F-35s intercept Russian Sukhois.
The F-35 recently has passed several important milestones despite lingering cost, technical and maintenance problems. The Royal Air Force’s F-35Bs flew in combat for the first time on June 16, 2019.