Four Dutch F-35A Aircraft Have Deployed To Bulgaria To Reinforce NATO’s Eastern Flank

RNLAF F-35 Bulgaria
One of the four RNLAF F-35As landing in Bulgaria on Apr. 6, 2022. (All images Dutch MOD)

The RNLAF F-35s have landed at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria.

Four F-35A of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) have deployed to Bulgaria, on Apr. 6, 2022, the Dutch MOD announced. The Lightning II stealth aircraft landed at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, located about 130 kilometers to the southeast of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.

As part of operation “Guardian Lighting” the aircraft will be put under NATO command and start supporting the Air Policing mission beginning next week, to monitor the alliance’s Eastern Flank (that, considered the situation, someone calls the “Eastern Front” although NATO is not actively taking part in the hostilities). Just two aircraft will be used for the task, with the other two jets used as spares so as to guarantee that at least a pair of stealth aircraft are always available.

Interestingly, the deployment of the aircraft was preceded by the activity of 13 Army engineers that worked on the construction of the clamshell hangars at Graf Ignatievo, that are used to recover the F-35.

Among the released by the Ministerie van Defensie one provides some interesting details about the configuration of the F-35s taking part in the deployment: it looks like the aircraft, fitted with RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers, carried live AIM-9X Sidewinders on the external rail launchers as well as AIM-120D inside the internal weapons bay. Considered the current posture, it seems likely that the one used for the ferry flight from the Netherlands will be the same configuration used for the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert)/enhanced Air Policing mission in Bulgaria.

F-35A in its clamshell hangar.

The deployment of the jets is also accompanied by a contingent of Dutch Marines that provide the force protection of the aircraft.

The four in Bulgaria are not the first F-35As the RNLAF deploys in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: on Feb. 24, 2022, two RNLAF F-35A Lightning II aircraft departed from Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands to deploy to Poland and support NATO’s enhanced Vigilance Air Policing activities.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a freelance 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.