F-35 and NATO: A Match Made in Heaven – There are certainly worse ways to spend a summer than by visiting Germany, but members of the Vermont Air National Guard (ANG) are likely happy to be home after their recent deployment to Spangdahlem Air Base, which began in May. Eight Lockheed Martin F-35A Light II fifth-generation fighters, along with ground crews from the Vermont ANG’s 158th Fighter Wing were deployed to Europe to take part in NATO’s enhanced air policing mission along the alliance’s Eastern flank.
The Vermont ANG team took over the mission for Hill Air Force Base’s (AFB’s) 388th Fighter Wing, which had been executing the coalition’s air policing mission since the middle of February. U.S. European Command regularly rotates units to maintain readiness across the service, as well as to display the United States Air Force’s ability to integrate seamlessly between Active Duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard components.
F-35: Confronting Russian Aggression
Since late February, when Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine, the Air Force has regularly forward-deployed a variety of aircraft – including F-35s – to the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions to enhance NATO security and stability while further supporting NATO’s enhanced air policing.
The continuation of the recently completed F-35 mission provided Air National Guard Airmen the opportunity to continue the regular touchpoints and routine training integration with U.S. allies and partners throughout Europe.
The eight aircraft flown by the Vermont ANG’s 134th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron prepared for the deployment in April with more than 200 Airmen. As part of ongoing NATO operations in Europe, the “Green Mountain Boys” conducted shield and assurance missions.
“We were there flying F-35s to support NATO and flew missions along the entirety of NATO’s Eastern Flank from Estonia to Bulgaria,” said Lt. Col. John MacRae, commander of the 134the EFS.
Over the course of their three-month deployment, the Green Mountain Boys flew more than 450 sorties totaling in excess of 2,000 flying hours. The F-35s were regularly joined on these flying missions by aircraft from other NATO countries and landed in a few of them for further integration. Several of the 158th Fighter Wing’s F-35s landed in Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and North Macedonia, where they were able to meet with civilian and military leadership to highlight relations between the NATO members, and show the United States’ commitment to addressing Russia’s unwarranted aggression against its neighbor.
“We’re here…because they needed us,” MacRae continues. “Hill [Air Force Base] was out here on their immediate response force and they were at the end of their window and we were available and ready to go.”
After being the first Air National Guard wing to receive F-35s in 2019, the 158th was deemed “operational” at the beginning of 2022, and the wing and its Airmen were qualified to deploy and perform the types of missions that they subsequently carried out in Europe. Many of the countries the Green Mountain Boys were sent to over the course of their summer-long deployment already had long-standing relationships with the National Guard through the State Partnership Program.
The NATO policing mission has further enhanced the partnership while highlighting the capabilities of the fifth-generation aircraft.
“The Green Mountain Boys successfully accomplished our deployment to USAFE [U.S. Air Forces in Europe] and I’m proud to be part of such a talented team,” said MacRae. “We volunteered to give up our summer in Vermont to generate and fly sorties to defend NATO’s Eastern Flank. It was a rewarding three months and our small wing had a big strategic impact.”
As the Vermont ANG’s 158th Fighter Wing prepared to return home, the United States Air Forces in Europe confirmed that Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors from the 90th Fighter Squadron of the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska would next take up the NATO air shielding mission. The first of six Raptors arrived at Royal Air Force Base (RAF) Lakenheath, England in late July.
What the Experts Tell Us About the F-35
“The F-35 is clearly an essential component for NATO to ensure that Russia is deterred and won’t start trouble with the alliance – now and in the future,” explained a former senior Department of Defense official who served during the Trump Administration who agreed to an interview if conducted on background. “Putin knows he has no way to match the F-35 plane for plane, and this is why country after country around Europe wants the F-35.”
Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.