Integration Between 4th and 5th Gen Aircraft Among The Key Themes Of Astral Knight 2021 Exercise

Astral Knight 2021
Some images of the assets taking part in Astral Knight 2021. (All images: Claudio Tramontin)

Astral Knight 2021 was a U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa-led joint multinational exercise that took place in the Adriatic region.

From May 13 to 21, personnel and assets from the U.S., Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Slovenia, took part in the latest iteration of Astral Knight, a joint multinational exercise with the “aims to enhance the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air, land and sea capabilities, and overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise.”

Astral Knight 2021 saw the return of the drills to the Adriatic theatre after the 2020 edition took place in Poland and the Baltic area.

This year, participating aircraft, based at Aviano AB, Italy, and several other locations across the region, included the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle belonging to the 492rd Fighter Squadron, deployed to Larissa, Greece; F-16 Fighting Falcon jets and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters belonging to the 31st Fighter Wing from Aviano; C-130J Super Hercules aircraft from various bases; Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft belonging to the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola AB; Hellenic Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon and Emb-145 Erieye aircraft; and Croatian MiG-21 BisD/UMD aircraft.

Astral Knight 2021
F-16 in Have Glass V paint scheme.

A NATO E-3 AWACS and several KC-135 and KC-46 tankers also supported the exercise flying their racetracks over Italy and the Adriatic Sea, where they could be tracked online on an almost daily basis by means of their Mode-S transponders. Interestingly, online flight tracking apps and websites exposed also the presence, over Croatia, of an “unannounced” USAF E-8J Joint STARS, most probably involved in the drills.

“[Astral Knight 2021] is USAFE’S exercise for integrated missile defense,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Richard Greer, 31st Fighter Wing AK21 exercise planner. “The [exercise participants] are linking all of their command and control nodes together to be able to show a combined radar picture.”

Astral Knight 2021
F-16 taxiing.

The integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) exercise focused on defending key terrain, and scheduled training involved a combination of flight operations and computer-assisted scenarios.

This year’s edition of Astral Knight was also linked to Adriatic Strike 2021, a Slovenia-led JTAC training exercise involving 22 NATO nations intended to develop interoperability joint readiness capability. As already reported, a Spanish Tiger helicopter flying an Adriatic Strike mission was forced to perform an emergency landing after hitting a power line in Slovenia.

Integration between 4th and 5th generation aircraft by means of Link 16 was again one of the key themes of Astral Knight.

Astral Knight 2021
One of the Aviano AB-based HH-60G Pave Hawks.

While U.S. Air Force F-35As (belonging to Hill AFB’s 421st Fighter Squadron) integrated operationally with Italian Air Force F-35As and communicated with each other over the MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link) for the first time in 2019, Astral Knight 2021 saw two Italian F-35As deploy for the first time to Aviano AB, where they were cross-serviced by eleven F-35 crew chiefs from Hill, Eglin, Eielson and Luke Air Force Bases.

Astral Knight 2021
One of the two Italian F-35s landing at Aviano AB on May 20, 2021.

The two Italian Lightnings, including the latest delivered airframe coded 32-13 with special tail markings, made their first landing at Aviano AB on May 20, 2021.

“We started off with hot-pit refueling and interoperation servicing (IOS),” U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Drace Bertrand, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit F-35 crew chief said. “We had ITAF members here with us, just in case anything went wrong. We then sent the jet up to perform another mission after the IOS.”

Some interesting details about the participation of the ItAF F-35s in AK21 were released by the U.S. Air Force:

“I was flying in AK19 with the [ITAF] squadron and a [U.S. F-35s] with my former students over the Adriatic Sea,” said ‘Decker,’ ITAF 13th Squadron commander. “I felt at home in a perfect comfort zone, sharing plans is a strength for conducting operations.”

During this multinational exercise, they had the opportunity to strengthen and improve communication, partnerships and operational capabilities.

“The opportunity to put together activities, efforts and experiences is one of the added values of this [exercise],” said Decker. “It give us the chance to operate together in a harmonized scenario that satisfies the needs from all the players.”

Decker, one of the first two ITAF instructor pilots who trained on the F-35 in 2016, spoke on the F-35’s capability for interoperability with older aircraft such as F-16 Fighting Falcons during AK21.

“The Italian air force is strongly focused on the integration activity between 4th and 5th-generation aircraft, with a particular focus on the ways in which systems, including the fundamental chain of command and control, are able to interact, communicate, integrate and help each other,” said Decker.

The Italian F-35s, equipped with both the MADL and Link 16, communicated with legacy aircraft and performed the function of “enhancers” of previous generation platforms.

AK21 builds upon nations’ joint capabilities, ensuring enhanced interoperability. Decker said he has high expectations for future Astral Knight exercises.

“The more exercises like [AK21] that are in place, the more partnerships will strengthen and the more we become a unified force ready to carry out the assigned tasks for the protection of NATO airspace,” said Decker.

We had the opportunity to visit Aviano AB during the Media Day of the Exercise. The photographs you can find in this report were taken by our photographer Claudio Tramontin on May 21, 2021.

Astral Knight 2021
Aviano Viper.
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.