U.S. Air Force F-35As are conducting flight operations out of Lithuania and Estonia — along with fighter jets from the Royal Danish and Polish air forces — to secure the skies over Baltic allies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Six Lightning IIs with the 34th Fighter Squadron out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, forward deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, to NATO’s eastern flank Feb. 24 to augment the alliance’s air policing mission, just one day after Russia invaded Ukraine.
NATO released video Tuesday of F-35s conducting flight operations at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. Other Lightning IIs are deployed to Ämari Air Base in Estonia and Feteşti Air Base in Romania.
Operating alongside F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle fighter jets, the F-35s are tasked with ensuring no illegal or threatening air traffic is present in NATO territory, a tall order as Russia continues its assault on Ukraine.
Other U.S. aircraft that have also forward deployed in the past week include 20 AH-64 Apache helicopters that were sent from bases in Germany to the Baltics, 12 more Apaches sent from Greece to Poland and possibly two additional F-35s that were sent to an unspecified location along NATO’s southeastern flank.
“We want to send an unmistakable message that the United States together with our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made into NATO,” President Joe Biden said in a speech detailing the U.S.’s economic sanctions against Russia.
“We still believe that Russia is poised to go much further in launching a massive military attack against Ukraine. I hope we’re wrong about that.”
As the news broke that NATO was activating it’s 40,000-troop-strong Response Force, a senior U.S. F-35 official spoke to Air Force Times under the condition of anonymity on the deployment of U.S. fighter jets to augment NATO missions.
“Why are they in the Baltics? It’s assurance, deterrence and, quite frankly, I think they’ll do training as well, depending on how the situation evolves,” the official said Feb. 23.
“Europe’s going to have 500 F-35s. Only 50 of those are going to be U.S. airplanes at [RAF Lakenheath, England], give or take,” they said. “It has to be seamless with our partners.”
No official word has been given yet by the Defense Department on how long U.S. deployments in response to the Russian invasion will last.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.