Up Close And Personal With The F-35s Securing The NATO Skies Over Iceland

Taken from the ramp of a KC-130J of the Italian Air Force, this shot shows two F-35As deployed to Keflavik, for NATO's Icelandic Air Policing. (All images: Author).

We have travelled to Keflavik to see the Italian Air Force Lightnings supporting NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing mission. Here are all the details and some stunning photographs.

From Oct. 2, 2019, the skies over Iceland are secured by the F-35A Lightning II aircraft belonging to the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force). As part of TFA (Task Force Air) 32nd Wing (that includes the Task Group Lightning alongside technical and logistics teams as well as a group of Air Defense controllers) the stealth jets provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duties from Keflavik International Airport, Iceland, working with the controllers at the Combined Air Operations Centre in Uedem, Germany and the Control and Reporting Centre at Keflavik.

Given its unique strategic geographical location near the Arctic region and since Iceland doesn’t have the necessary capability of its own, NATO Allies, in conjunction with the Icelandic authorities, have agreed to maintain a periodic presence of NATO fighter aircraft at Keflavik to help keep Icelandic airspace safe and secure. The mission is carried out by fighter aircraft from Allied nations that typically deploy to KIA (Keflavik International Airport) for rotations lasting around three to four weeks, three times a year.

An Italian Air Force F-35A sits in front of the shelter at Keflavik. Note the AIM-120 missile visibile in the weapon bay.

For the current rotation, the Italian Air Force has deployed six F-35 belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base in southeastern Italy. It is the first time the 5th generation aircraft are deployed to a mission under NATO command and control, making the current rotation a milestone not only for the Italian Air Force but for the whole Alliance.

The Italians have started deploying on Sept. 24, when the first formation of four aircraft left Amendola for Keflavik supported by a KC-767A tanker with the 14° Stormo from Pratica di Mare, a C-130J of the 46^ Brigata Aerea (Air Brigade) from Pisa, and a P-72A Maritime Patrol Aircraft beloning to the 41° Stormo from Sigonella. The aircraft refuelled twice along the route from the KC-767A before touching down at KIA. The remaining aircraft deployed on the following day.

Italy is the first partner nation to deploy the F-35 under NATO command.

The first familiarisation flights were launched on Sept. 27 and the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) of the TFA 32nd Wing was declared on Oct. 1, 2019. The Italian Air Force detachment achieved the FOC (Final Operational Capability) and was declared mission ready to conduct NATO’s peacetime Icelandic Air Policing mission on the following day, Oct. 2, two days ahead of the initial schedule. The mission readiness certificate was handed over by Lt. Col. Wilhem May from NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem, Germany, to the TFA commander Col. Stefano Spreafico during a ceremony held at Keflavik on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

Two F-35s “break” over Iceland.

The Italian F-35s carry out the QRA service in Iceland with the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C5 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay.

The Italian detachment has achieved the FOC on Oct. 2, 2019. Since then at least two F-35s (the exact number depends on the NATO requirement) are in QRA alert at KIA.

One may wonder why the F-35, that is not a “pure” interceptor, is committed to such an air defense mission. Well, the reason is quite simple: deploying the 5th gen. stealth aircraft under NATO command allows the service (in this case, the Italian Air Force) to test the asset as part of a different chain of command, with different procedures, on a different base, and in different (sometimes adverse/austere) weather conditions. The peacetime air policing mission requires the aircraft in QRA to scramble with live air-to-air missiles when there is the need to intercept, identify and escort, aircraft approaching or “skirting” NATO Ally’s sovereign airspace: a task that an F-35 is more than able to conduct. Moreover, the deployment on a NATO mission is one of the milestones the Italian Air Force has set along the path to achieve the type’s FOC ( BTW, it’s worth remembering that, first in Europe, the Italians declared the F-35’s IOC on Nov. 30, 2018).

Close up view on one of the F-35s of the 13° Gruppo.

Thanks to the collaboration of the Italian MoD, Joint Chief of Staff, Air Force and NATO Allied Air Command, we have had the opportunity to visit the Italian detachment in Iceland and take the photographs you can find in this post.

A more complete article, with additional shots and pilot interviews, will be published in the January 2020 issue of Air Forces Monthly.

Stay tuned!

Iceland makes for an unbelievable background for this shot of two ItAF F-35A Lightning II deployed to Keflavik.

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.