Italian Air Force F-35
Italian Air Force F-35 (@ U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Brooke Moeder)

Italian Air Force F-35s train at Aviano during exercise Astral Knight 2021

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 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. “I was flying in AK19 with the ITAF squadron and a U.S. F-35s with my former students over the Adriatic Sea,” said “Decker” the ITAF 13th Squadron commander. “I felt at home in a perfect comfort zone, sharing plans is a strength for conducting operations.

During this multinational exercise, they had the opportunity to strengthen and improve communication, partnerships and operational capabilities. “The opportunity to put together activities, efforts and experiences is one of the added values of this exercise,” said Decker. “It give us the chance to operate together in a harmonized scenario that satisfies the needs from all the players.

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. “We started off with hot-pit refueling and interoperation servicing (IOS),U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Drace Bertrand, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit F-35 crew chief. “We had ITAF members here with us, just in case anything went wrong. We then sent the jet up to perform another mission after the IOS.

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. Bertrand said performing cross-servicing procedures on ITAF F-35s strengthens partnerships because it helps build trust among partner nations.

The experience gained during AK21 prepares allies and partners for potential operations in support of NATO and other multinational contingencies around the globe.

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.

Decker, one of the first two ITAF instructor pilots who trained on the F-35 in 2016, spoke on the F-35’s capability for interoperability with older aircraft such as F-16 Fighting Falcons during AK21. “The Italian air force is strongly focused on the integration activity between 4th and 5th-generation aircraft, with a particular focus on the ways in which systems, including the fundamental chain of command and control, are able to interact, communicate, integrate and help each other,” said Decker.

AK21 builds upon nations’ joint capabilities, ensuring enhanced interoperability. Decker said he has high expectations for future Astral Knight exercises. “The more exercises like AK21 that are in place, the more partnerships will strengthen and the more we become a unified force ready to carry out the assigned tasks for the protection of NATO airspace,” said Decker.

Photo credits: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Brooke Moeder