Last month, the Italian Air Force deployed four of its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II jet fighters to Ämari Air Base in Estonia and over the weekend the fifth-generation stealth aircraft were scrambled in their first-ever incept supporting NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission.
“The Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, recorded an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea ordered flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad and ordered an alert scramble for the F-35s mission to identify that track,” NATO Allied Air Command said in a statement.
“Upon take- off, the Italian NATO aircraft approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft executing the first-ever intercept by an F-35 under NATO orders in the Baltic Sea,” the Allied Air Command added.
The Russian military transport plane was flying over international waters close to the Estonian coast. It was not on a flight plan and not sending a transponder signal, which caused a potential risk to other airspace users. After successfully completing the identification, the Italian fighter aircraft returned to Ämari Air Base.
Italy on a BAP Mission
NATO allies have collectively secured the airspace above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 2004, as the three nations do not have an air defense capability of their own. The protection is provided by the BAP, whereby more powerful allies deploy their jets to the Baltic States in intervals typically lasting half a year.
Since 2014 a total of twenty-two fighter detachments have operated from the Estonian airbase. The four Italian F-35As had arrived in the Baltic State last month, replacing the German Air Force’s four Eurofighter Typhoons that had been deployed there since August 2020.
However, this is the second time the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin-built fighter has flown over the skies of Estonia. In 2017, two United States Air Force F-35As, which had been deployed to the UK, flew from Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath to Ämarias part of a BAP mission – but it encountered no Russian aircraft during that sortie.
The Italian fighters of the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, flew to Estonia on April 30 to begin their deployment under the “Baltic Eagle II” mission. The F-35As were supported by a KC-767A tanker flying as IAM1447 from Pratica di Mare Air Base, The Aviationist reported.
The Italian F-35A fighters had previously supported the NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice before – the first time in 2019 and a second time in 2020. During the follow-up deployment to Iceland, the Italian Lightning IIs scrambled to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142 bombers.
“The integration of the F-35 advanced capabilities demonstrates how the Allies bring their cutting-edge technology and support NATO’s enduring defensive mission in the region,” said Brigadier General Andrew Hansen, deputy chief of staff operations at Allied Air Command.
“The mission in the Baltics epitomises NATO cohesion and solidarity; at Ämari, the deployed Allied fighter detachments have enabled us at AIRCOM to flexibly conduct the mission and at the same time assure the Baltic populations of NATO’s commitment,” Brig. Gen. Hansen added.
Under NATO command, the Italian F-35s will be deployed to Estonia until August, when those four aircraft will be replaced by Italian Typhoons.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.