An Italian Air Force F-35B and an RAF F-35B jet from HMS Queen Elizabeth were involved in an Expeditionary Combat Support Event at Pantelleria airport during exercise Falcon Strike 2021.
On Jun. 8, 2021, Pantelleria, the tiny island located in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, some 100 km (62 mi) southwest of Sicily and 60 km (37 mi) east of the Tunisian coast, hosted an Italian Air Force F-35B (the only one assigned to the service, serialled MM7453/32-14) and a Royal Air Force F-35B (ZM154/020) embarked with 617 Sqn aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, involved in an Expeditionary Combat Support Event (ECSE) part of the large Falcon Strike 2021 exercise currently underway in Italy.
The tactical event saw the two F-35B jets perform a short landing on the runway of Pantelleria, carry out hot-pit refueling (ground refueling with engines on) and then take off again to continue their assigned missions.
The hot-pit refueling was made possible by a KC-130J of the 46^ Brigata Aerea (Air Brigade) from Pisa, using ALARP (Air Landed Aircraft Refuelling Point), a special system providing simultaneous refueling of up to 4 aircraft by pumping fuel to the receivers from the Super Hercules tanks.
The goal of the ECSE was similar to the one of the F-35B Expeditionary PoC (Proof of Concept) the Italian Air Force arranged on Jul. 30, 2020, at Pantelleria: assess the ability to deploy the F-35B aircraft to a forward operating location served by an austere/bare runway normally not usable by other conventional aircraft and project power from there.
The ECSE marked the first time the RAF and ItAF F-35Bs carried out joint training with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the F-35, and also the first time a British Lightning landed in Pantelleria. Actually, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, one of the 10 aircraft belonging to the VMFA-211 Wake Island Avengers, based at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, deployed aboard HMS QE on her maiden operational deployment to the Indo-Pacitic region, was also slated to join the event, but its participation was cancelled (according to some sources, after one of the Marine jets was forced to perform an emergency landing in Ibiza).
For the moment, the Italian Air Force has received just one F-35B that was not transferred to the U.S. because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have been operating the jet for about one year now” said Lt. Gen. Gianni Candotti, the Italian Air Force’s operational commander. “We have had the opportunity to grow a significant experience with the new aircraft, we have qualified additional pilots (initially, the aircrews were test pilots from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo – the Italian Air Force Test Wing – while the pilot involved in the event here in Pantelleria is an officer with the 13° Gruppo) and got all the technical certifications required to carry out activities like the one we have conducted today.”
While they are cooperating in Falcon Strike 2021 exercise, for the moment, the Italian F-35B is not planned to pay visit to the large HMSQE aircraft carrier: “The Italian Air Force needs the F-35B to be able to operate from short runways, a capability we had in the 1960s with the G-91 and lost with its successor, the AMX. The lack of such ability has caused us issues for quite a long time. When we deployed to Afghanistan [in 2008], we first had to find an alternate airbase [Mazar-i-Sharif] with a runway that was suitable for the Tornado, then we started working on the runway at the forward operating location that was hosting the Italian base [Herat] and, after one year, once we had extended the runway, we were eventually able to operate from there [with the AMX]. The F-35B would have allowed us to operate from there since the beginning. That being said, while it is possible, operating from aircraft carriers is not our immediate objective: that is not the reason why we have selected this kind of aircraft,” Candotti commented.
As already explained, the ECSE was part of the wider Falcon Strike 21, a joint multinational exercise with participants from the United States, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The exercise aims at improving the integration between fourth-generation and fifth-generation aircraft as well as increasing the level of cooperation in the F-35 logistics and expeditionary fields.
Falcon Strike 2021, with MOB (Main Operating Base) at Amendola Air Base, sees the participation of F-35s from five different air arms: Italian Air Force F-35A and B; RAF F-35B, U.S. Air Force F-35A, U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs and Israeli Air Force F-35I Adir (at their first deployment to Italy) jets are taking part in the drills.
#FalconStrike2021 is now underway!
Our “Adir” (F-35I) Division has recently touched down in Italy as part of its first-ever overseas deployment and will begin training alongside our friends from the @italianairforce, @usairforce, and @RoyalAirForce pic.twitter.com/tCOBZZIvru
— Israeli Air Force (@IAFsite) June 6, 2021
Other assets involved in the exercise are the Gulfstream G550 CAEW, F-2000 Eurofighter Typhoon, Tornado ECR and IDS, AMX, T-346 aircraft, and MQ-1 Predator aircraft; along with several more support assets. Missions include HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort), Close Air Support, Air Interdiction, Special Operations support.