The Pentagon made an announcement on Friday indicating that the U.S. Air Force is deploying its superior F-35A for the first time this weekend. The fighter jets will be heading to Europe to conduct training exercises with NATO allies.
The small number of F-35As from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, will be deployed to an undisclosed location in Europe. However, the Defense Department offered sparse details about the event.
The strike fighters will spend several weeks in the region as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, the department’s effort to strengthen military ties with European allies to help deter Russian aggression on the continent.
The Defense Department said in a news release that the 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, adding that the deployment will also assist in refining requirements for eventually basing the F-35A in Europe, which is scheduled to receive the aircraft in the early 2020s.
The F-35 deployment to Europe has been in the works since the Obama administration. Back in December, the former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hinted that the service would go to Europe this summer.
The Air Force Secretary was speaking during a speech at the Atlantic Council when she said that the F-35 had been declared combat capable and that the Airforce would deploy its newest fighter to Europe in the not too distant future. She also hinted that the deployment was bound to take place in summer, adding that the unique combination of stealth, situational and sensor fusion will play an important role in reassuring allies and providing deterrence.
Back in February, the former Air Combat Command Head Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, who retired last month, restated that the service could send the aircraft to Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions as early as spring, with a deployment to the Middle East probably following a couple years later.
The U.S. Airforce has not said where exactly the F-35s will be based. However, one potential option is British Royal Air Force base Lakenheath, England, which is slated to be the first Air Force base overseas to receive the joint strike fighter. Col. Robert Novotny, then the commander of the base’s 48th Fighter Wing, told Defense News that RAF Lakenheath will eventually host 54 F-35As, although the timeline for deploying those aircraft has slipped from 2020 to perhaps one or two years later.