Exercise Report : ASTRAL KNIGHT 2019 – Aviano AB, Italy
Thursday, May 23, 2019, marked the first time the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II landed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Six U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the Active Duty 421st Fighter Squadron / 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve unit 466th Fighter Squadron / 419th Fighter Wing, arrived at Aviano AB, home of the 31st Fighter Wing, to participate in the exercise Astral Knight 2019. The deployment led by the 421st Fighter Squadron “Black Widows” saw a total of twelve of the 5th generation stealth multi-role fighters, airmen, and associated equipment from Hill AFB, Utah, being completed two days later when the second batch of aircraft arrived in Italy.
Astral Knight 2019 is a joint multi-national exercise led by the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. The exercise took place over the course of four days in the first week of June, from Monday June 3 to Thursday June 6, at Aviano AB, Italy, as well as other locations in Italy, Croatia, Germany, and Slovenia, involving airmen and soldiers from the United States and service members from Croatia, Italy, and Slovenia.
In the Astral Knight exercise, air and missile defenses are integrated and focused on conducting defense of key terrain. The exercise’s goal is to enhance the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air, land and sea capabilities and overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise. Training involves a combination of flight operations and computer-assisted air defense scenarios.
How better to understand the aspects of this new exercise than some questions and answers. We had the opportunity to interview Capt. Korey Fratini (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs) and here following is what he explained to us related to our questions:
Which kind of missions do the F-35s and F-16s carry out, and what are the roles of each kind of fighters (4th generation and 5th generation) in the exercise?
The role the F-35s and F-16s are carrying out during Exercise Astral Knight is to integrate into the integrated air and missile defense architecture. During the exercise we are testing how we incorporate offensive and defensive measures to create a comprehensive joint and combined force capable of preventing an enemy from effectively employing its offensive air and missile weapons. Integrating our 5th Generation assets with our 4th Generation assets like the F-16s and Italian Eurofighters allows us to further maintain the advantage by complementing the air superiority capabilities of our other 4th and 5th Generation aircraft.
Is this the first time that 5th generation fighters of different Air Forces, U.S. Air Force and Italian Air Force, are simultaneously involved?
While this is the first time that the U.S. and Italian F-35s have exercised together in Europe this is not the first time that U.S. F-35s have operated with other F-35s from other nations. Exercise Astral Knight has provided an excellent opportunity for the F-35s from both countries to operate together and learn from each other to improve interoperability. The U.S. is extremely proud to fly alongside the Italian F-35s as their program has been extremely successful.
Have the U.S. Air Force F-35s and Italian Air Force F-35s different roles in the exercise?
During this exercise both the U.S. and Italian F-35s are playing in the same role. Both are serving as “blue air” as friendly forces are known. Having both the U.S. F-35s and Italian F-35s operate together is a key component to Astral Knight. Enhancing the interoperability between the two nations is crucial to advancing our overall readiness in the European theater.
How can 4th generation aircraft effectively operate together with 5th generation fighters?
The 4th generation aircraft can effectively operate with 5th generation assets like the F-35 by complimenting the capabilities that those aircraft bring to the fight. Having these different generation aircraft operate together improves on our overall capabilities to provide ready and lethal forces in the event they are ever needed. By integrating the assets together in exercises like Astral Knight, we are preparing our forces to deploy and operate in a wartime or contingency scenario if called upon. The integration of 5th generation assets also allows the U.S. and our allies to maintain the advantage by complementing the air superiority capabilities of our other 4th and 5th generation aircraft.
Does the U.S. Army Missile component interact as a threat or as a component of the integrated defense system in this exercise?
The U.S. Army Patriot Missile system that is being operated by the 10th Army Air and Defense Missile Command will not be operating in a threat capacity. Their role is to fully integrate into the integrated air and missile defense architecture. The MIM-104 Patriot is a surface-to-air-missile system used by the U.S. Army. The system uses advanced aerial interceptor missiles and high-performance radar systems. Patriot is a modular and highly mobile system that provides a coordinated, secure, integrated, mobile air defense system.
How is the role of the E-3 aircraft integrated?
The role of the E-3 Sentry is to provide aerial command and control functions of the friendly aerial assets that are flying during the execution of Astral Knight. The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft with an integrated command and control battle management, or C2BM, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. The aircraft provides an accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to the Joint Air Operations Center. In the case of Astral Knight, the E-3 is providing that picture back to the 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. AWACS provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, battle management of theater forces, all-altitude and all-weather surveillance of the battle space, and early warning of enemy actions during joint, allied, and coalition operations.
How important is it for 31st Fighter Wing units being involved in an exercise with 5th generation aircraft? What are the benefits?
The 31st Fighter Wing’s involvement in Exercise Astral Knight was key to increasing interoperability of the F-16s with the F-35s. Additionally, exercises like these enhance our ability to accept and bed-down forces from other bases for a lengthy period of time. Overall, hosting an exercise like Astral Knight bolsters combat readiness and capabilities of the 31st Fighter Wing.
Will Aviano AB host the exercise again next year?
Aviano will not be hosting Astral Knight in 2020. Exercise Astral Knight 2020 is expected to take place somewhere in the Baltic region next year.
Will some F-35s fly forward deployments to other airbase during their stay at Aviano AB?
While the F-35s are deployed to Aviano they will not forward deploy to any other bases. However, once exercise Astral Knight is complete, the F-35s will depart Aviano for other locations in Europe to train with other allies and partners.
The following aircraft and units were involved in exercise Astral Knight 2019:
- U.S. Air Force:
- F-16s from 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano AB
- F-35s from 388th Fighter Wing / 419th Fighter Wing deployed to Aviano AB
- KC-135R from 171st Air Refueling Wing operating from Aviano AB
- KC-135R from 100th Air Refueling Wing operating from RAF Mildenhall, 507th Air Refueling Wing and 931st Air Refueling Wing
- KC-10s from 514th Air Refueling Wing
- E-3s from 505th Command and Control Wing operating from Ramstein AB
- F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron operating from Campia Turzii, Romania
- Italian Air Force:
- F-35s from 32° Stormo/13° Gruppo based at Amendola
- F-2000s from various Stormo
- G-550 CAEW from 14° Stormo based at Pratica di Mare
- Croatian Air Force:
- MiG-21s from the Combat Aviation Squadron based at Zagreb-Pleso
- U.S. Army:
- MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system from 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command (5th Battalion/7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment) deployed to Slovenia
For just one day, on Tuesday, June 4, a B-52 belonging to the 2nd Bomb Wing, from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, joined the exercise after a no-stop flight from the USA. It conducted flights in the exercise area among different Italian Air Force and U.S. Air Force aircraft involved in Astral Knight with purpose to enhance the interoperability with each other. The mission of the Stratofortress was scheduled to take off and land from home base in Louisiana, but all lucky enthusiasts outside the fences and service personnel on base could see the B-52 to perform a flight pass over Aviano AB, late in the morning of the second day of the exercise.
The 421st Fighter Squadron “Black Widows” is the last of three squadrons of Hill AFB’s 388th Fighter Wing to receive the F-35A Lightning II. The first jet arrived December 12, 2018. The squadron will gain its full component of aircraft roughly at the end of this year, and Hill AFB will reach the expected total number of 78 F-35A multi-role fighters. At Hill AFB the active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing both operate and maintain the fleet of 5th generation stealth multi-role fighters to achieve the Total Force Integration partnership.
After exercise Astral Knight was over, the F-35 contingent departed from Aviano AB and relocated to Spangdahlem AB, Germany, from where they trained with other allies and partners. A pair of F-35s visited the TLP 19-2 at Albacete in Spain before going to Germany. The F-35’s deployment is part of the Theater Security Package funded through the European Deterrence Initiative, previously named European Reassurance Initiative (renamed EDI in 2017), which purpose is to provide a robust U.S. military rotational presence in the European theater, in order to deter adversaries and assure partners and allies of U.S. commitment to the regional security.
The future location of this brand-new exercise is already outlined, as specified in the interview. Astral Knight 2020 will not be hosted at Aviano AB, it is expected to take place somewhere in the Baltic region, and it will incorporate more NATO allies and partners. The involvement of 5th generation aircraft among 4th generation assets, surface-to-air missile systems and the test and evaluation unit (505th TEG / 605th TES) in command and control integration shows this exercise is front line in coordination and interoperability of air and land capabilities into the IAMD (Integrated Air and Missile Defense) enterprise.
We’d like to thank Capt. Korey Fratini (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Air Forces in Europe & Air Forces Africa Public Affairs), Lt. Col. Alessandro Alfonsi (Aviano Air Base, Italian Air Force), and Mrs. Angela Zammattio (31st Fighter Wing / Public Affairs) for supporting us in realizing this article.
Sources: U.S. Air Forces in Europe & Air Forces Africa Public Affairs; 31st FW/PA; 388th FW/PA
Last Modified: 21 August 2019