For the first time ever, two Italian air force F-35 Lightning IIs, assigned to the 32nd Wing, Amendola Air Base, Italy, landed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, May 20-21, in support of Astral Knight 2021 (AK21). AK21 is an integrated air and missile defense exercise focused on defending key terrain, involving service members from Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Slovenia and the United States. This year ITAF F-35 pilots, who also participated in Astral Knight 2019, played the role of “allies” during AK21. AK21 builds upon nations’ joint capabilities, ensuring enhanced interoperability.
“The current program of record shows European nations’ F-35 inventories outnumbering US F-35s based in Europe by almost 10 to one,” said Chief Master Sgt. Derek Conrad, Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa 5th-generation integration team maintenance and logistics liaison. “European nations would have 10 times as many F-35s as the U.S. does in Europe. That’s why we’re taking great steps now to learn how to interoperate with partners. That’s what this is all about.”
“I was flying in AK19 with the Italian air force squadron and a [U.S. F-35s] with my former students over the Adriatic SeaI felt at home in a perfect comfort zone, sharing plans is a strength for conducting operations. The opportunity to put together activities, efforts and experiences is one of the added values of this exercise. It give us the chance to operate together in a harmonized scenario that satisfies the needs from all the players.,” said ‘Decker,’ ITAF 13th Squadron commander.
During this multinational exercise, they had the opportunity to strengthen and improve communication, partnerships and operational capabilities. While at Aviano, eleven F-35 crew chiefs from Hill, Eglin, Eielson and Luke Air Force Bases performed cross-service actions on the ITAF F-35s. Hot-pit refueling allows aircrew to land and keep their engines running while they refuel, before taking off to continue the next leg of their respective missions. The experience gained during AK21 prepares allies and partners for potential operations in support of NATO and other multinational contingencies around the globe.