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Air Force deploys F-35 fighters for training in Europe

By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 14, 2017

SAN ANTONIO — A small number of F-35A Lightning II aircraft are deploying to Europe for weeks of allied training in the ongoing mission to deter Russian aggression, the Pentagon said Friday.

The exercise will mark the first overseas operational deployment for the Air Force’s variant of the aircraft, Capt. Mark Graff, an Air Force spokesman, said Friday. The F-35B is already fielded in Japan by the Marine Corps, he said.

Graff would not confirm media reports that the aircraft are from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. However, he said the 34th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 388th Fighter Wing, is the first operational squadron of F-35As.

The aircraft will fly alongside other NATO aircraft as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, a U.S. effort to galvanize allies on the continent amid Russian incursion into Crimea and Ukraine, Graff said.

He declined to give specifics on the number of fighters deployed, their initial location upon arrival or whether the aircraft will participate in ongoing exercises with Army units stretching from Estonia to Romania.

The Fort Carson-based 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division became the first unit to begin rotations designed to mark a year-round presence in the region when it arrived in January.

The Pentagon sought to downplay the timing of the F-35A deployment, calling it “long-planned” in a news release. Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in December at an Atlantic Council event that the aircraft’s use in the region in 2017 was a distinct possibility.

“Now that the F-35 has been declared combat capable, we will deploy our newest fighter to Europe in the not too distant future,” she said at the Washington think tank event.

A deployment of F-35s to the region has come months after U.S. and NATO allies identified shortfalls in aviation capabilities in the region to counter Russia’s assets. The Europe-based 12th Combat Aviation Brigade hosted 21 NATO states and partner nations in November in an effort to boost collaboration, Stars and Stripes reported.

A fleet of Chinooks, Blackhawks and medevac helicopters from the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Drum in New York, assumed operations in Germany in March.

The F-35 program has become a symbol for cost overruns and bureaucratic entanglements since its inception to become a multirole aircraft, taking on missions from close air support to conventional air-to-air warfare.

The total costs of the program are estimated to top $1 trillion to produce 2,457 planes, according to the Government Accountability Office.

horton.alex@stripes.com
Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

Hill Air Force Base F-35As fly over the Utah Test and Training Range, March 30, 2017.
R. NIAL BRADSHAW/U.S. AIR FORCE

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