Astral Knight 2019 marks USAF F-35 record deployment, strengthens integration between fourth-fifth generation fighters

Astral Knight 2019 F-35 Aviano
USAF F-35A takes off from Aviano AFB during Astral Knight 2019 exercise.

The Aviano air base, northern Italy, is currently hosting a record line-up of USAF F-35 stealth fighters. On 23 and 25 May, two squadrons consisting of six aircraft each from 388th FW and 419th FW at Hill AFB, crossed the Ocean to reach Italy and execute the largest and longest deployment of F-35s in Europe and the first on Italian soil. The main purpose of the deployment is to allow Lightening IIs to participate in the Astral Knight 2019 (AK19) exercise and train together NATO forces.

AK19 is a U.S. Air Force in Europe led exercise that is taking place at Aviano AFB as well as other locations in Croatia, Germany and Slovenia. It is an integrated air and missile defense exercise focused on conducting defense of key terrain. This exercise aims to enanche the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air, land and sea capabilities and overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise. The AK19 includes USAF F-16s, F-35s, KC-135s, KC-10s and E-3s, ITAF F-35s, Eurofighters and G550 and CAF MiG-21s.

Like most modern aerial exercises, the AK19 offers a great opportunity for cooperation between old and new generation systems. 

“The F-35 has reached a point where we can do both our continuation and upgrade training to a level where integration will benefit both fourth- and fifth-generation pilots,” said an F-35 pilot during a previous interview.

“The difference in the way of thinking between flying a fourth-generation and a fifth-generation fighter is tremendous,” he said. “The ability to get out there and see the capabilities of the fifth-generation F-35 versus a fourth-generation airframe, and then to teach fourth-generation pilots how to integrate the tactical and technological advances of the fifth generation, is a great opportunity for us.”

The fourth and fifth generation jets will work together for some time, requiring pilots to be skilled in developing and using integrated tactics designed to maximize the utility of both types. The military fleets of several NATO countries will include fourth-gen aircraft for at least two decades.

Usually, during exercises such as AK19, stealth planes are in charge of escorting coalition fighters and protecting them from SAM (Surface to Air Missile) threats. In addition, they play the role of "Battle Manager", sharing tactical information with other aircraft during DCA (Defensive Counter Air) missions.

Thanks to their stealness, the F-35s can penetrate the battlefield without being noticed by the enemy's radar and successfully complete SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions so as to allow Allied aircraft to conduct ground attack missions with low defeat rates.

The AK19 also marks the first interaction in the European skies between Italian and U.S. F-35s. The Lightning IIs of the Italian Air Force are now perfectly integrated with those of the US Air Force. The Italian F-35 pilots have recently proven their ability to operate together with other JSF users during Red Flag 19-2 exercise at Nellis AFB (More details here).

The main air operations are conducted over the Adriatic Sea, during the days prior to the exercise the USAF F-35 pilots conducted several familiarization flights to check zones and set procedures. At the end of the AK19, the stealth fighters will continue their training together with NATO Allies flying out of other air bases in Europe.

Written by Matteo Sanzani

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