We have obtained the photos of the first intercept by F-35s supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing mission last month.
The Lightning II jets, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, were scrambled after the Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, detected an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad. Upon take off, the F-35s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft flying in international airspace off Estonia.
Initially, no official photo of the intercepted Russian aircraft was released. “Actually, unlike the majority of the other allies, Italy rarely releases images of the “zombies” (as the targets of the intercept mission are called in fighter pilot lingo) taken by the Italian pilots during their QRA launches in support of NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing missions around Europe,” this Author commented back then.
However, responding to a request we submitted immediately after the news of the intercept had been released, NATO Allied Air Command has eventually provided us two images showing one of the two Italian F-35s escorting the An-12 over the Baltics: nothing special to be honest, since the configuration of the Lightning was standard (with RCS enhancers and no external air-to-air missile launchers) and the “zombie” was just a “Cub” transport plane, still interesting, as they represent the only photo evidence of the first ever intercept of an F-35 under NATO command in the Baltics for the records.
Noteworthy, you can also see the pretty distinctive wingtip vortices (similar to contrails) generated by the F-35.
The flaperon and wingtip vortices have long been subject of discussion here at The Aviationist. GAO claimed that these could affect the aircraft’s stealth performance; others suggest these visible “tubes of circulating air which are left behind the aircraft’s wing as it generates lift” may make the aircraft more easily picked up visually by an enemy pilot in a WVR (Within Visual Range) engagement even though some pilots have explained that they are not a factor because if you are close enough to see the F-35’s vortices, you are probably close enough to see the jet. True, although some images taken from the ground and posted online recently of F-35s trailing a tanker indeed seem to confirm that, under certain conditions, those vortices may highlight the presence of the jet from several miles away.
The Italian F-35s deployed to Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021; on May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.
The Italian F-35s will remain in Estonia for the BAP mission until August, supporting “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia. The F-35s will then be replaced by the Italian Typhoons as the plan calls for Italy to support NATO BAP in Estonia until the end of 2021.