Three Nations Take Part In International F-35 Operations Over Southern Italy

Two Italian Air Force F-35As flying together with two RAF F-35Bs over southeastern Italy. (Image credit: Author).

RAF F-35B and U.S. Air Force F-35A jets flew to Amendola, Italy, to take part in joint missions with the local-based Italian Air Force F-35A jets.

On Jul. 2, 2019, Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, home of the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), the first Italian Air Force unit equipped with the F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft since 2016, hosted what has been unofficially dubbed an international F-35 training day, that saw the involvement of both the 617 Sqn “Dambusters” of the Royal Air Force, flying the F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter; and the 421st FS (Fighter Squadron) of the U.S. Air Force, the newest fighter squadron in the Air Force to stand up the F-35A about 6 months ago.

Two British F-35B jets (out of 6 deployed to Cyprus since May 21 as part of Operation “Lightning Dawn”, the Squadron’s first overseas deployment) had landed at Amendola on Jul. 1, on their way back to RAF Marham, UK from their first combat experience: in fact, as already reported, on Jun. 16, the F-35Bs of the 617 Sqn flew from RAF Akrotiri their first sorties in support of Operation Shader, the UK contribution to the Global Coalition’s counter Daesh mission in Iraq and Syria, making the Royal Air Force the fourth air arm (after the Israeli Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force) to carry out combat missions with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Italian and British F-35s flying together over southern Italy before recovering to Amendola on Jul. 2, 2019. (All images, Author unless otherwise stated).

In the morning on Jul. 2, two Italian Air Force F-35A jets belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo, took part in a joint mission with the two British F-35B, in what was also the first time ever the Italian and British stealth jets flew together and “talked” one another thanks to MADL (Multi-function Advanced Data Link).

Here’s what I wrote about MADL recently:

One of the key features of the F-35 Lightning II 5th generation aircraft is the ability to act as a real node of a Command and Control system by means of datalinks. The stealth jet is equipped with the Link 16, a widely used TDL (Tactical Data Link) that acts as a sort of “backdoor” allowing the F-35 to communicate with legacy aircraft and perform the function of “enhancers” of previous generation platforms; and the most advanced, and unique to the aircraft, MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link).

As explained in a previous post about the F-35, MADL is a secure datalink that allows Lightning II aircraft to communicate among each other or with other platforms using the same technology, like the B-2 bomber and ships equipped with the AEGIS Combat System. MADL increases the capabilities of a formation of F-35s, sharing sensors and data from each aircraft to create greater Situational Awareness, as done by the F-22s in Syria.

“The purpose of this joint activity is to consolidate the interoperability between two of the most important air forces in the F-35 program,” said 32° Stormo Commander Col. Davide Marzinotto. “Although the platform has reached a good degree of maturity, it is important for us to share the Lessons Learned in various fields.”

Up close and personal with an F-35A Lightning II aircraft.

“This is also an example of the flexibility of the F-35 program: foreign nations aircraft can deploy here at Amendola and get the operational and logistical support they need to operate. The infrastructures were born with this embedded ability to support partner air forces F-35s. This is also the first time we cooperate with the F-35B,” Marzinotto commented.

Two F-35B beloning to 617 Sqn and two F-35A of the 13° Gruppo during their flight on Jul. 2, 2019.

“Lightning Dawn was our first Proof of Concept deployment away from the UK. We had lots of different objectives we wanted to achieve and we met all of them,” said RAF 617 Squadron Wing Commander John Butcher. “We performed armed overwatch of our forces on the ground in support of Operation Shader. We flew just with F-35s. We worked alongside the Typhoon detachment, they gave a lot of briefs on the airspace, issues they had seen in operating in those airspaces. So we took their lessons, applied them to ourselves and then we went off”.

The two F-35B that took part in the joint drills with the Italian Air Force landing at Amendola on their way back from Cyprus. Interestingly, the UK MOD designation for the aircraft is “Lightning” and not “Lightning II”.

“I met the Wing commander Butcher yesterday, we talked for ten minutes about today’s mission. Today we carried out a tactical mission that would have been impossible to fly with any previous generation aircraft that easily and that quickly,” said Maj. Maurizio De Guida, commander of the 13° Gruppo. “We were on the same MADL chain and I realized only after landing that I had flown a mission alongside an F-35B when I’ve seen their test of the flight controls that is different from ours. While airborne we were flying the same aircraft, in a complex mission with an amazing ease”.

Two Italian Air Force F-35A. The Italians have declared IOC during TLP 18-4 in November 2018.

The UK currently operates 17 F-35Bs, nine of which are assigned to 617 Sqn at RAF Marham, UK. Later in the year, 617 Squadron will embark aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth for shipborne operations the first time.

An Italian F-35A leads a 4-ship formation that includes two RAF F-35B aircraft. The Italian Air Force will also get the F-35B STOVL variant of the Lightning II aircraft. (Image credit: The Aviationist’s Alessandro Fucito)

During the afternoon, several Italian Air Force assets including KC-767 tanker, T-346 and AMX as well as four F-35A and two Eurofighter Typhoon jets (from Gioia del Colle) departed from Amendola, took part in a complex OCA (Offensive Counter Air) mission inside a restricted airspace located over the Tyrrhenian Sea that also involved four F-35A belonging to the 421st FS from Hill Air Force Base, deployed to Europe in May as part of a Theater Security Package.

The American F-35s launched from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, carried out the mission and landed at Amendola Air Base, where U.S. and Italian F-35 pilots could carry out joint debrief and also talk to the press.

A formation with two Italian F-35A, two U.S. Air Force F-35A and two Italian Typhoons. (Image credit: The Aviationist’s Giovanni Maduli)

“We are here to increase interoperability,” said a U.S. Air Force Lt.Col. pilot, who identified himself only by his callsign “Ali”. “Exercise Astral Knight, that we did last month, was our first test of interoperability between Italian F-35s and U.S. F-35s. Today we made a step forward and had also the opportunity to land in Amendola and actually talk face-to-face to the Italian pilots, that we couldn’t do during Astral Knight, when we were based in Aviano, while the Italians flew from here. For instance, F-35 pilots who took part in today’s OCA mission will have the opportunity to debrief together and this is extremely important as the best learning happens in the debrief.”

F-35A of the 421th FS flying over southern Italy. Interestingly, all the Hill AFB’s Lightning IIs, including those deployed in the AFCENT area of operations, fly with the external AIM-9X pylons. (Image credit: The Aviationist’s Giovanni Maduli)

The Aviationist would like to thank the Italian Air Force and in particular the Public Information Office for the opportunity to visit Amendola during the international Lightning operations and to shoot photographs of the various F-35s from the ramp of C-130Js. A special thank you goes to Col. Federico Merola, Capt. Simone Antonetti and Capt. Liberata D’Aniello for their support during the trip; and to the 46th Air Brigade crews and to the Troupe Azzurra photographers who helped us taking the shots you can find in this article. The entire 32° Stormo were professional, gracious hosts during our stay.


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.