Photos taken today prove at least two Vipers of the 31st Fighter Wing launched from Aviano with live air-to-air missiles.
Two U.S. Air Force F-16CM Fighting Falcon aircraft belonging to the 555th Fighter Squadron of the 31st Fighter Wing, based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, took part in a mission over Eastern Europe carrying Live weapons, on Saturday Feb. 19, 2022.
The shots in this post, taken by photographer Claudio Tramontin outside Aviano, show the two aircraft, serials #89-2035 and #89-2039, loaded with AIM-120C/D AMRAAM and AIM-9X air-to-air missiles along with external fuel tanks.
The missiles were LIVE as proved by the yellow and brown bands, for the live warhead and the live rocket motor, respectively. Interestingly, the Vipers carried also the AN/ALQ-131 ECM pod as well as the Sniper ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod). Pilots worn the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Sight).
To our knowledge, this was the second time the Aviano’s Vipers flew with Live armament since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis [first time, at least in daylight, was reported to be on Friday Feb. 18, 2022]. Moreover, according to our sources, the two F-16s operated inside Romania’s airspace along with other NATO and U.S. assets for several hours before RTB (Return To Base).
Over Romania, the F-16s of the 555th FS “Triple Nickel” were supported by U.S. tankers (KC-135/KC-10) from RAF Mildenhall, whose racetracks could be tracked online by means of their Mode-S/ADS-B transponders.
USAF tanker activity over Romania
NCHO220, LAGR221, LAGR220 pic.twitter.com/FyTLIDGQzX
— RivetJoint (@SpeckleBelly64) February 19, 2022
It’s not the first time the F-16s from Aviano operate in the Black Sea region armed with live air-to-air weapons. For instance, in 2020, the Vipers of the 31st FW took part in a joint exercise focusing on realistic integration, operation and communication between surface and air assets to protect the maritime domain. The drill was not announced in advance, causing some curiosity among online flight trackers who started observing multiple military aircraft (somehow unusually flying a training sortie on a Sunday morning in Europe) on their way to the Black Sea. Back then, the F-16s were in the same configuration as those spotted today. The main difference is the scenario: eastern Europe is now facing the threat of a war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be imminent, with tensions at their highest in years and a significant build-up near the two nations’ borders.
The F-16s, along with other U.S. and NATO fighters deployed to the Eastern Flank, were probably tasked with a deterrence mission, flying CAP (Combat Air Patrol) to ensure air superiority and DCA (Defensive Counter Air), and provide, if needed, HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort) to the many ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft keeping an eye on the Russian movements around Ukraine.
Today, at least 7 US ISR aircraft flew sorties over Europe: US Army RC-12X (YANK01, YANK02), ARTEMIS (BRIO68); USAF RQ-4 (FORTE10), RC-135W (JAKE11), RC-135U (HOMER69), E-8C (REDEYE6). 1/6 pic.twitter.com/A4EecdZjI9
— Amelia Smith (@ameliairheart) February 19, 2022