Operation Northern Lightning II
Since June, six F-35As of the Italian Air Force’s 32nd Air Wing have been deployed to Iceland for the second time, to conduct the air policing mission required by NATO. MON was invited on a ‘virtual press tour’ organised by NATO to better understand the functioning of this support for Icelandic air defence, designated Northern Lightning II.
Iceland is the only NATO country lacking permanent armed forces. All peacetime military activities fall under the responsibility of the Coast Guard (Landhelgisgæsla Íslands), which manages surveillance of the EEZ and the SAR service. In addition, the Coast Guard operates the Airspace Surveillance System (Íslenska Loftvarnarkerfið), based on four Lockheed Martin AN/FPS-117 3D AESA radars at four remote sites. To overcome the lack of an air component, NATO provides a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) section consisting of at least four fighters, in order to have homogeneous air coverage. Air policing falls under the NATO cooperation agreement known as Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to Meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs (ASIC-IPPN). Since established in 2008, ten nations have taken turns to provide an alert cell at Keflavik air base, under the supervision of the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Uedem in Germany, responsible for air policing for Eastern and Northern Europe. In this context, Italy was the first country to deploy F-35As, followed by Norway, which is also frequently engaged in Iceland.
In March 2019, Italian F-35As twice intercepted Russian TU-142s aircraft in transit through international airspace. More recently, the first scramble took place just a days before our [early July] tour – the first real operation of the Italian detachment in 2020. Scrambles are not the only operations conducted by 32nd Wing in Iceland – they aircraft are also called upon for surveillance activities, especially shadowing Russian aircraft to monitor their operations and intentions when flights take place close to NATO airspace. Italy has chosen to send six aircraft instead of four, in order to take advantage of the large airspace available for training purposes. Usually, two aircraft are kept ready for take-off in a few minutes, with a third one in stand-by and ready to augment the flight. Sometimes as many as four aircraft have had to take-off simultaneously – possible thanks to the aircraft’s high availability rate, according to Italian crew chiefs. Aircraft not on standby can be used (depending on maintenance availability) to carry out training missions of all descriptions.
Deployment in Iceland has allowed the Aeronautica Militare to test the logistics necessary to support the F-35 overseas, both from an organizational perspective and in terms of the functioning of the Autonomous Logistics Information System (ALIS) and aircraft maintenance. As Col Michele Cesario, detachment commander, told MON, the first experience was both a challenge and a voyage of discovery. Among other things, the air force also had to cope with curious coordination between military flight activities and the uniquely civil Icelandic air traffic control regime. The second deployment took place in a much more natural way and lessons learned will be used to standardise future overseas deployments for Italian F-35s. Today, the Aeronautica Militare considers the F-35A a multi-role aircraft, capable of conducting different kinds of tasks during the same mission.
Marco Giulio Barone in Paris for MON