In May, the US troops joined forces with other NATO members to demonstrate combat readiness in North Macedonia, the alliance’s newest member. A month later, on June 17, the American F-35A stealth fighters made an enthralling appearance in this South-East European country.
In another round of exercises held to give security assurance to the country, a pair of American F-35A Fighters landed at Petrovec Military Airport near Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. The Balkan state formally joined NATO in March 2020 and has an active military of around 8,000 soldiers.
The F-35 fighters, belonging to the Vermont Air National Guard, are part of a detachment stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany for NATO air policing. The NATO air policing operations have intensified and become more coordinated ever since Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine.
The stealth fighters were armed with live AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles or AMRAAMs when they landed at Petrovec. The F-35A touching down at Petrovec is the first time the stealth fighter has landed in North Macedonia or any other Balkan state.
According to USAFE, the Air Force’s senior command in Europe, the goal of sending the jets to North Macedonia was to demonstrate Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concepts of operations and reassure a NATO ally. The organization is currently mulling ways to bolster the defenses of its Eastern flank further lest aggression should spill over.
First ever landing of an F-35A in one of the countries of Former Yugoslavia. Two @usairforce AIM-120 carrying Lightning II’s of the 134FS visited Skopje, North Macedonia today. Unique apron setup placed them in the middle of one Mi-24V and a Mi-17 of the North M. AF. pic.twitter.com/yLR1x2io5C
— Peter Voinovich (@PeterVoinovich) June 17, 2022
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to comment on any changes in the United States force posture in Europe. Still, he said the US and its partners would make preparations to deploy soldiers, if necessary, quickly. It is the core of the ACE concept in the US, which it has demonstrated with its fifth-generation stealth fighters in North Macedonia.
As per the ACE concept, the Ground, naval, and air forces of the United States must be able to deploy quickly in a given area and conduct dispersed, long-term operations if necessary.
Large military bases would quickly become targets in a near-peer conflict; therefore, operations would have to be undertaken from what would typically be considered austere areas and airstrips.
The Air Force proved its ability to quickly refuel and swap pilots in the F-35As at Petrovec in the recent demonstration of ACE operations, which, in a real combat scenario, would be “designed to return the aircraft to the air quickly with fresh crews, extending the length and effectiveness of aerial missions,” according to the Air Force.
Fully Armed & Ready
Armed with live AIM-120s, these two F-35As appeared ready to conduct their air policing responsibilities if needed. NATO air policing consists of contingents of fully combat-capable fighter jets stationed at several sites and prepared to respond to any potential hostile air activity or other aerial emergencies on short notice.
Both F-35As have a pair of AIM-120s mounted on their interior bay doors, one on each. The yellow ring around the forward section of the body, which indicates the presence of a high explosive warhead, plainly identifies the missiles as live rounds. According to The WarZone, two more missiles were likely stored in the bays.
The F-35 can carry four AIM-120 AAMRAMs in its internal carriage, a new generation all-weather weapon manufactured by Raytheon. The first AIM-120 AMRAAM was fired from an F-35A fighter five years ago in February 2017.
The AIM-120 is a beyond-visual-range, all-weather air-to-air missile with active radar and an inertial reference unit. The active radar directs the missile to intercept the target, allowing the pilot to simultaneously aim and launch numerous missiles at multiple targets.
The F-35 becomes a more versatile option for combatant commanders and boosts the likelihood of mission success by carrying air-to-air missiles, according to the US Air Force.
“It is because of North Macedonia’s membership as a NATO ally that we can share the security that comes from air policing missions and the rapid deployment of advanced capabilities of the F-35 platform as demonstrated today,” Air Force Lt. Colonel John Macrae, a member of the Vermont Air National Guard who took part in the exercise told the press.
F-35A Fighters Policing Europe
The F-35s have been deployed for NATO policing missions over the Black Sea and the Baltic region since the onset of Russian military operations against Ukraine in late February. Several NATO countries that operate the aircraft, like Netherlands and Italy, had pressed their aircraft to support the NATO policing missions in the Eastern European region.
However, the aircraft has not policed the airspace over the Balkan region. Thus, the enthusiasm displayed in this recent exercise in North Macedonia indicates a resolve to solidify the alliance further.
Several of our F-35A Lightning II's are currently forward deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base to NATO's eastern flank in order to support enhanced air policing missions.
These missions enhance NATO's defensive posture and prove we can provide F-35A capabilities rapidly. pic.twitter.com/nNP9BkLrYa
— 388th Fighter Wing (@388fw) February 24, 2022
“Operations of the F-35 from the airports in the Republic of North Macedonia is the most evident example of strategic partnership and mutual trust between the US and the Republic of North Macedonia,” Slavjanka Petrovska, the country’s Minister of Defense, said in a statement.
“It shows our commitment and readiness to face unpredictable operational requirements in this complex international environment.”
While the fact that F-35As are now stationed in Europe primarily to serve NATO’s air policing mission is unsurprising, the choice to arm these planes even for a non-combat tour to North Macedonia highlights the alliance’s current heightened security stance.
The US military and other NATO members have suggested that the alliance’s increased force posture will likely remain in place even if the Ukrainian conflict is resolved. It could also be an opportunity for the US to demonstrate and hone its ACE capability, which could come in handy in a dispute with China in the Indo-Pacific region.
As the war rages on and Russia warns of aggression against other NATO members, F-35 fighters loaded with live missiles could become a usual visitor to the region.