MILAVIA > Specials > USAF F-35 First Deployment to Europe Last updated: 14 June 2017
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Exercise Report : USAF F-35 First Deployment to Europe

USAF F-35A Lightning II First Deployment to Europe

In April 2017, the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II fifth generation multi-role stealth fighters from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, started the F-35's first operational deployment to Europe. The F-35 deployed to RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom to fly exercises with the 48th Fighter Wing. Report and photos by Renzo Del Bianco

Eight F-35A Lightning IIs and more than 200 airmen belonging to active-duty 34th Fighter Squadron / 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve unit 466th Fighter Squadron / 419th Fighter Wing, Hill AFB, Utah, deployed to RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, from April 15 to May 7. Air Mobility Command C-17 and C-5 transports provided airlift support, while the 100th Air Refueling Wing from RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, supported the transatlantic flights with multiple air-refuelings.

While deployed in Europe, the F-35As flew 76 sorties and totalled over 156 flying hours, flying alongside 48th Fighter Wing F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles, as well as with some Royal Air Force Typhoons and other NATO aircraft.

According 493rd Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Zumwalt, “this deployment was a great opportunity for the 34th FS and 48th FW to practice the 4th and 5th generation fighter integration tactics. Exercises provided the pilots with the opportunity to practice working together to solve complex tactical scenarios using integrated operations that optimized both the F-35 and F-15’s capabilities [...] achieving a higher level of performance than either aircraft can achieve alone”.

These exercises were carried out locally in the UK airspace. On April 25 and 28 respectively, two of the F-35s also flew forward deployment to the air bases of Ämari, Estonia, and Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, demonstrating the U.S. commitment to the NATO Collective Defence in Europe with its latest capabilities, while also strengthening partnerships and reassurance for the Central and Eastern members. The European deployment of the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II was planned within the framework of the European Reassurance Initiative programme for 2017.

The first combat-coded F-35A arrived at Hill AFB, Utah, in October 2015, and was assigned to 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams”, which had been re-activated on July 17, 2015, as part of the F-35 Transition Program. This former F-16 squadron was stood down in 2010 following the USAF-wide restructuring plan to save money, cutting the number of Air Force units, and thereby had reduced the Operations Group of the 388th Fighter Wing to just two F-16 squadrons, the 4th Fighter Squadron “Fightin’ Fuujins” and the 421st Fighter Squadron “Black Widows”. These squadrons are currently flying the F-16CM/DM. By the end of 2019, Hill AFB will be home to three F-35 operational squadrons when they have also transitioned to the new F-35A. Just as with the operational service entry of the F-16 back in the day, the F-35’s history with the operational units of the U.S. Air Force has started at Hill AFB, with the 388th Fighter Wing.

Both the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing fly and maintain the 5th generation stealth multi-role fighters of 75th Air Base Wing at Hill AFB to achieve the Total Force Integration objective. Already back in 2007, on April 16, the first major milestone for this was reached when Gen. Ronald E. Keys, Commander of Air Combat Command, and Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, Commander of Air Force Reserve Command, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to create the association between the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing. This formally established the Total Force Integration (TFI) and enabled the regulars and reservists to move forward with one mission statement as Hill AFB Total Force Fighter Wing. It tested and provided the benchmark for integrating force components by the new organizational construct, combined with new programs, forces, and technology, ensuring the Air Force’s readiness in meeting present and future challenges. TFI association capitalizes on the higher experience levels of the Air Force Reserve personnel, and elsewhere also Air National Guard personnel. This road has brought the Hill AFB wings to share being the first combat-ready units to fly and maintain the U.S. Air Force’s newest fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

RAF Lakenheath is home to the several squadrons currently assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing, the 492nd Fighter Squadron and 494th Fighter Squadron flying the F-15E Strike Eagle, the 493rd Fighter Squadron flying the F-15C Eagle, and the 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons flying HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. The HH-60G component is scheduled to relocate to Aviano AB, Italy, starting in 2018. The move will position the Combat SAR assets at a more strategic location for operations across Africa, Europe, and Southwest Asia. RAF Lakenheath has been designated as first U.S. air base in Europe to receive the F-35A Lightning II, in 2021 the 48th Fighter Wing will be the first to operate the 5th generation stealth fighter-bomber under U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa Command.

Sources : 48th FW/PA; 75th ABW/PA; 388th FW/PA; 12th AF/PA

My sincere thanks to 48th Fighter Wing / Public Affairs, RAF Lakenheath, for the opportunity given me with this photo session.
Renzo Del Bianco / AAFG

Report and photos by Renzo Del Bianco ( view portfolio )

First Published: 14 June 2017
Last Modified: 14 June 2017

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