Since May 2021, the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare; AM) has conducted the first deployment of fifth generation fighter aircraft to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing integrating this advanced capability into collective Allied security structures. Deploying this modern fighter aircraft to an enduring mission for the first time comes with challenges, but Italy has been able to draw on the lessons learned from deploying the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II to NATO’s Air Policing mission in Iceland in 2019 and 2020. The detachment was able to employ the F-35 like any other aircraft on alert, not encountering any problems even in a different than usual environment away from home.
“The mission is going very well both operationally and logistically. We were able to respond with a 100% efficiency to all scramble orders from NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany. The well-established sound procedures, excellent crew skills, maintenance support and the F-35 robustness has enabled us to live up to the expectations for the enduring Allied mission. In my opinion, the special part about deploying F-35 for the first time was that it was not like deploying for the first time,” said the Detachment Commander, Italian Air Force Colonel Vincenzo Sirico.
The Italian F-35s participated in several multinational exercises in the Baltic area e.g. providing Close Air Support for Joint Tactical Attack Controller exercise of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroups. Cooperation with eFP has been great and provided the opportunity to include various mission profiles into day-to-day training. The aircraft capabilities gave to the Allied personnel on the ground and other Allies air assets, the possibility to train and integrate a with fifth generation approach to combined operations. The deployment offered a chance to test NATO’s procedures for integrating 4th and 5th gen fighters with the existing NATO command and control architecture.
The Baltic air-policing mission is a NATO air defence Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in order to guard the airspace over the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Since the 1970s, NATO has established a comprehensive system of air surveillance and airspace management means, as well as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) assets for intercepts (QRA(I)) provided by its member nations. By means of radar sites, remote data transmission, Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs) and Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) the Alliance ensures constant surveillance and control of its assigned airspace 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. NATO exploits these facilities to react within seconds to air traffic incidents in the Allies’ airspace.