AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Airmen deployed from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, recently wrapped up the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs first participation in a large, European air-and-missile defense exercise.
The focus of the multi-national exercise, Astral Knight 2019, was to defend several key areas of terrain from cruise-missile and aircraft strikes. During the exercise, U.S. military forces worked closely with coalition forces from Croatia, Italy and Slovenia at various locations across Europe, carrying out operational and cyber scenarios.
From June 3-6, Hill’s 421st Fighter Squadron flew eight sorties per day in the exercise and met all of their frontline requirements.
“It’s hard to appreciate the challenges if you’ve never been in an exercise like this before. We’re bridging commands, services, countries and continents,” said Lt. Col. Richard Orzechowski, 421st Fighter Squadron commander. “We have some really smart, dedicated problem-solvers who helped us overcome the early hurdles that are going to be present at the start of any conflict or large, integrated exercise.”
Strategists say that integration, a key theme of Astral Knight, will be essential in any future war, and one of the main technological design features of the F-35A is interoperability.
“It’s truly rewarding to see that we can leverage all the capabilities of the F-35A, which we have all been working toward,” said Lt. Col. Brad Klemesrud, deputy commander of the 419th Operations Group. “In an exercise this large and complex, you get the opportunity to see how theory meets reality and put into practice what’s only been on paper.”
For the first time, U.S. Air Force F-35As integrated operationally with Italian Air Force F-35As and communicated with each other over the Multifunction Advanced Data Link, a system unique to the platform.
“Bringing together multiple nations for an exercise of this scope is crucial,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa deputy commander. “It is vital that we continue to expand our capability to operate with each other and integrate fifth-generation assets, like the F-35.”
Hill’s F-35As also flew alongside Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, KC-135 Stratotankers, E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control aircraft and B-52s. They also flew with coalition Eurofighter Typhoons and Mig 21s and integrated with European-based U.S. Army missile-defense systems.
“The F-35’s sensors provide unmatched situational awareness of the battlespace,” Orzechowski said. “Both us and the Italian F-35s are able to share all of that information with other aircraft in the formation, with ground-based missile systems, and we make everyone more lethal and survivable. The scenarios we saw really demanded that capability.”
The 421st Fighter Squadron is the newest fighter squadron in the Air Force to stand up the F-35A. They received their first aircraft less than 6 months ago. Planning and moving a dozen aircraft, hundreds of Airmen, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of equipment is a testament to the drive and training of Hill’s fighter wings, said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.
“The F-35 is a challenging aircraft to pick up and move because of the amount of equipment fifth-generation maintenance requires,” Miles said. “But, with our Airmen, we have everything we need to accomplish the mission on a daily basis. We met all our sortie requirements and flying objectives for the exercise. This experience will allow our younger Airmen to see how we put a whole deployment together and will make them stronger, particularly as we move forward with combat operations in the F-35.”
Astral Knight is just the beginning of the 421st Fighter Squadron’s time in Europe. They will transition to other locations throughout the summer as part of a European Theater Security Package.