The Italian F-35As Have Deployed To Estonia For NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission

Italian F-35 Estonia
Two Italian Air Force F-35As. (Image credit: Author)

It’s the first time 5th generation aircraft take part in BAP mission.

On Apr. 30, 2021, four Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II jets landed at Amari Air Base, Estonia, to take over the NATO’s BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission. It’s the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to Estonia (even though the Italian Eurofighter Typhoons operated there for BAP in 2018) and also the first time that 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States.

The Italian F-35s belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, and their deployment to Estonia was supported by a KC-767A tanker, flying as IAM1447 (and tracking online), from Pratica di Mare Air Base.

As part of the “Baltic Eagle II” mission, the Italian F-35A aircraft, operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia will replace the German Air Force Eurofighters which have been deployed to Amari since late August.

At the same time, after leading BAP for 8 months, the Italian Typhoons have completed their rotation at Siauliai, Lithuania.

Although it’s the first time they operate from Estonia, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets have already supported NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice: the first time in 2019, the second in 2020, when the Italian Lightnings scrambled for the first time to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142s.

In case you are wondering why the F-35A, that is not a “pure” interceptor, is committed to provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert), an air defense mission in Estonia and the Batlic States, here’s the explanation this Author provided in a previous article about the participation of the Italian Lightnings to the Icelandic Air Policing 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).

This time the ItAF F-35s will provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) from Estonia, much closer to Russia.


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Previous U.S. F-35 trip to Estonia.

Dealing with the F-35 and Estonia, it’s worth remembering what happened in April 2017, when two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Amari for a short visit. In fact, the quick stopover was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region: as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF Rivet Joint) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia as the F-35s headed to, stayed and returned from Amari. Back then, we speculated the presence of the three spyplanes was related to the F-35s trip: they were probably “covering” the stealth jets, deterring the Russians from using their radars to gather details on the Lightnings at their first trip to Estonia. We also noted that it was not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics were directly or indirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

Whatever, although the peacetime NATO QRA configuration does not require the F-35s to keep their LO (Low Observability) – this is the reason why the Lightnings on alert are equipped with radar reflectors/RCS enhancers – it’s quite likely that the presence of the Italian F-35A 5th generation stealth aircraft in Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia, will attract some interest by the Russians land and airborne ELINT sensors, targeting, if not the F-35’s radar signature at specific wavelengths, at least its valuable radar emissions… We will see.

A big thank you to our friend Giovanni Colla for sending us additional details about the deployment!

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.