Italian Air Force F-35A and F-35B Fly In “Beast Mode” For The Very First Time

F-35A and B in Beast Mode. (All images: Troupe Azzurra/ItAF)

The Italian Air Force, the only Armed Force operating both the F-35A and F-35B, flew the jets in “Beast Mode” for the first time.

The Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) has just released two shots showing an F-35A and an F-35B, both assigned to the 32° Stormo (Wing) and operated by the 13° Gruppo (Squadron), the first Italian unit to fly the F-35 since December 2016, flying a training mission in “Beast Mode”, with internal and external weapons for the very first time.

The F-35A carried four GBU-12s LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) on the external pylons and two AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles in the weapons bay; the F-35B, airframe serialled MM7453/32-14, flying in STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) mode, carried four GBU-12s: not only was this the first time the aircraft flew in “Beast Mode” but it was also the first time the Italian F-35s are photographed with external loads.

“Beast Mode” is not an official or technical term. However, it has become a pretty common way an F-35 configuration involving both internal and external loads has been dubbed. So much so, the Italian Air Force, has used it sharing the images across the social networks (noteworthy is the hashtag #RepartoSperimentaleVolo that marks the support to the external weapons carriage test provided by the Italian Air Force Test Wing, based in Pratica di Mare).

Actually, others call any configuration involving external loads “Bomb Truck” or “Third Day of War” configuration.

As explained in previous posts here at The Aviationist, as opposed to a “First Day of War” loadout, in which the F-35 would carry weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability, the “Third Day of War” configuration is expected to be used from the third day of an air campaign when, theoretically, enemy air defense assets (including sensors, air defense missile and gun systems and enemy aircraft) have been degraded by airstrikes (conducted also by F-35s in “Stealth Mode”) and the battlespace has become more permissive: in such a scenario the F-35 no longer relies on Low-Observability for survivability so it can shift to carrying large external loads. These conditions are not always met. For instance, LO was not needed when the F-35A was called to carry out the first air strike in the Middle East, nor when the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B carried out the first air strike in Afghanistan.

Anyway, in “Beast Mode“, exploiting the internal weapon bays, the F-35 can carry up to 2x AIM-9X (pylons), 2x AIM-120 AMRAAM (internal bomb bay) and 4x GBU-31 2,000-lb (pylons) and 2x GBU-31  PGMs (internal bay). However, the loadout can be different, with lighter GBU-32s or GBU-12 500-lb LGB (Laser Guided Bombs) as shown in the following table:

The F-35’s certified weapons loadout up to Block 3F software. (Image credit: LM).

“Beast Mode” aside, it’s at least worth of remark the fact that the Italian Air Force is continuing to explore the capabilities of the 5th generation. And has become less “shy” about the new aircraft than before.

Both the F-35A and the only B of the Italian Air Force have recently carried out a deployment to Decimomannu Air Base, in Sardinia, Italy, home of the RSSTA/AWTI (Reparto Sperimentale e di Standardizzazione Tiro Aereo/Air Weapons Training Installation) of the Italian Air Force. From Sept. 21 to Oct. 2, 2020, seven F-35 Lightning II aircraft (six “A” and one “B”) carried out various missions, including night missions inside the PISQ (Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra – Salto di Quirra Joint Range), an EW (Electronic Warfare) range located in central eastern Sardinia, just a few minutes flight time distance from Decimomannu.

An infographic showing some of the characteristics and loadout of the F-35A (with the weapons integrated on the Italian jets). (Image credit: C4/D15MA – The Aviationist)

More recently, four F-35A aircraft, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), based at Amendola Air Base deployed to Rivolto Air Base, in northeastern Italy, to take part in Lightning 2020, an exercise focusing on the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) and DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses) missions.

The photos of the F-35B in “Beast Mode” flying alongside the F-35A represents the second “public appearance” of the first STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft of the ItAF: the F-35B made its debut during the Expeditionary PoC at the end of July, when, supported by a KC-130J tanker, the airframe MM7453/32-14 deployed to Pantelleria, a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, to demonstrate the ability of the air force to project and use the 5th generation aircraft far from home, in a semi-permissive environment, on an austere/bare runway normally not usable by other conventional aircraft and with limited Force Protection provided by the host nation.

The Italian Air Force considers the F-35B and its STOVL capability a crucial component of a larger expeditionary system that makes the Air Force capable to project power. Here’s what the ItAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Alberto Rosso, said during the presentation of the F-35B at Pantelleria in July:

“This capability is extremely important to face new scenarios or situations like the one we had during the Gulf War. Our Tornado jets were deployed to an airbase [Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE] that was far away from the area of operations: this implied that our aircraft had to fly several hours and carry out several aerial refuelings before reaching their targets. The ability to operate from shorter runways can allow the selection of a closer airbase and solve the problem. In terms of flexibility, just think that in Africa there are about 100 runways that have a length between 2,800 and 3,000 meters but there are 20 times as many runways between 1,000 and 1,500 meters in length. Being able to use short runways allows you to multiply your ability to deploy where needed, in a more convenient and faster way, especially closer to the area of operation. Having an aircraft that is capable of taking off from shorter runways allows incredible flexibility even in those scenarios that are currently only barely conceivable. In case of conflict, aircraft that are able to operate from shorter runways can also be dispersed to increase their survivability. This flexibility to operate from bare/austere runways or even highways makes the air power more unpredictable and represents a fundamental capability in any scenario. For this reason, after carefully studying all the scenarios and costs, the Italian Air Force has identified, as done by other air arms, a mixed fleet of F-35A and B aircraft, as the most economically convenient and effective configuration.”

According to the latest plans, Italy is procuring 90 F-35s: 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force.

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.