Die Redaktion dankt ihrem unermüdlichen Aviatik-Korrespondenten Konrad Alder, Herausgeber des Nachbrenners, für den folgenden Beitrag aus dem amerikanischen Air Force Magazine.
Spangdahlem Delivers F-35 Air Power to the Eastern Flank
|A Russian cruise missile had just hit Lviv, Ukraine, in late March when a U.S. Air Force F-35 arrived to airspace in nearby Poland. The 34th Fighter Squadron pilot could faintly make out the civilian population and the aftermath of the strike below. “You could see the smoke from where they said the cruise missile hit at the airport,” said Capt. Alex Harvey, 31, who is part of a squadron deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, on a NATO Polish Air Policing mission.
Maj. Nolan Sweeney of the 34th Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is an F-35 pilot deployed to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, for a NATO Air Policing mission in Poland. Staff photo by Abraham Mahshie.
In the two months since, the pilots have flown hundreds of sorties, commuting 650 miles each way in their Joint Strike Fighters to eastern Poland. In that time, Russia has launched more than a thousand missiles at Ukraine, populating the skies with its fighters from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
NATO Air Command maintains more than 130 aircraft on alert with 24/7 Air Policing missions up and down the eastern flank of the alliance. Air Policing missions have scrambled to face Russian jets launched from Crimea, and they have observed Russian aircraft violating international norms in airspace near Poland. Polish Air Force officials say the Russian jets fly without transponders and do not file flight plans. Still, since the invasion was launched, the NATO pilots have made no intercepts, a move to escort an aircraft out of NATO airspace.
Within a week of the deployment, President Joe Biden announced that six F-35s would be forward deployed on rotation to three eastern flank countries: Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. For several days, the F-35s took off and landed from NATO countries strategically located and compatible with American aircraft. The six have since pulled back to Spangdahlem for a full suite of support personnel and their own hangars. In their place, F-15s, F-16s, and Marine Corps FA-18s have deployed to conduct Baltic and enhanced Air Policing missions along the eastern flank. Still, these F-35s are flying six-hour-long sorties that require two to three KC-135 tanker refuels from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., also deployed to Spangdahlem.
The winter weather and limited capability of eastern flank nations to host fifth-generation aircraft has presented challenges.
On their radar, aviators have seen all classes of Russian fighters and Ukrainian platforms in the sky. Other
F-35s on Air Policing missions from RAF Lakenheath, U.K., or British or Dutch F-35s, are forming their own radar pictures that are automatically shared. “I can see the entire Polish border from Slovakia to Kaliningrad,” said Harvey. “If his radar detects an airplane, that’s, let’s say, approaching NATO, my jet shows that to me as well,” he explained. “We’re still defensive, and whatever could happen with that, we all know about it together. So, there’s less chances of surprises, less chance of miscalculations. It’s still de-escalatory.”
The F-35’s sensors also penetrate deep into Ukraine. The F-35 has radar, infrared, and other sensors that form a picture hundreds of miles into Ukraine and Belarus, gathering information that is displayed on the cockpit screen, shared with allied F-35s on Air Policing missions nearby, and relayed to NATO command centers. The U.S. government has publicly said it shares intelligence with Ukraine that is helping the country to produce battlefield successes. The 34th Fighter Squadron pilots would not say if the data their aircraft gather on Air Policing missions contributes to that picture, but U.S. Air Forces in Europe confirmed that information collected through a variety of platforms adds up to a common intelligence picture.
“Our aircrafts are talking to one another,” said Sweeney. “You add in more F-35s, now the capability increases exponentially.” Added Harvey: “The F-35 specifically works better the more F-35s that are talking to each other.”