Tuesday, June 28, 2022

World’s ‘Stealthiest’ Air Force: Post F-16 Phaseout, Will This NATO Member Become The First Country To Fully Rely On F-35 Jets?

The number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft in European air forces is steadily increasing, giving NATO an advantage over Russia.

Leading the way is Norway, which is set to replace its aging F-16s aircraft with new F-35A fifth-generation planes. With this, Norway will reportedly be the first European country to be fully dependent on the super-advanced American fighter jets for quick reaction missions.

The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RoNAF) on January 6 marked the historic day when F-35s formally took over the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty, bringing an end to the F-16 fleet’s 42-year mission supporting its own country and NATO. 

RoNAF stated that its 57 remaining F-16AM/BM aircraft had been entirely replaced by the F-35As. Bodø Air Base, which was home to the F-16 fleet, will be deactivated as a fighter jet station, and Quick Reaction Alert operations will be carried out from Evenes Air Station, which is located further north. The official transfer of authority from F-16 to F-35 took place at Evenes Air Base. 

File:Norwegian F-35 pair. 2019 Bodø Airshow (49512724676).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Norwegian F-35 pair. 2019 Bodø Airshow – Wikimedia Commons

F-16 fighter planes have been stationed at Bodø, which has remained Norway’s crucial air base throughout the Cold War to date. Bodø’s strategic location facilitates short flying distance to monitor the northern air space. 

“The F-35 has now received the baton from F-16, continuing to keep a constant guard. I sense great pride today. The introduction of the new fighter jets has been a great success, thanks to our passionate and talented personnel and partners,” said Major General Rolf Folland, Chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force. 

Meanwhile, the airport in Bodø will continue to support civilian air traffic and will remain to be home to the 330 Squadron of SAR helicopters, which is managed by the Northern Norway Joint Rescue Coordination Centre.

Norway-F35
File Image: F-35s

Norweigian F-35s 

Several F-35s have previously conducted training missions from Evenes, including one in September last year when they soared over the Norwegian Sea alongside US Air Force B-2 bombers.

The Lockheed Martin-built planes are stationed at Evenes Air Base in northern Norway, with at least three of them ready to scramble in 15 minutes to monitor possible Norwegian and NATO airspace incursions.

Norway has ordered 52 F-35 fighter jets, 24 of which have already been supplied to the country. The entire squadron of 52 jets is expected to be fully operational by 2025, according to the Defense Ministry. The first RoNAF F-35 landed on Norwegian ground in November 2017 at Ørland Air Base. 

The switch in aircraft types significantly integrates the F-35 into the fabric of alliance patrol operations in Europe, coming on the heels of Lockheed’s recent sales successes in Finland and Switzerland. The Danish Air Force, like Finland, Switzerland and Norway, is also purchasing F-35 fighter jets, with the first planes expected to arrive in 2023.

Colonel Per Erik Solli (retired), former Executive Officer and F-16 pilot at Bodo Air Base, wrote in a policy brief for the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs that Finland’s decision to acquire the F-35 represents a step toward stronger interoperability across the Nordics.

“For more than a decade, the Nordic countries’ fighter forces have cooperated closely through the Cross Border Training regime as well as tactical and joint multinational exercises. This cooperation has become intertwined with broader regional security and defense integration since 2014,” Solli and co-author Øystein Solvang noted.  

Evenes Air Base

The Norwegian military is expanding the Evenes base to include P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, bringing important aerial and naval surveillance assets to an area where Russian military maneuvers have intensified. On November 18, 2021, the first Poseidon was delivered to Norway. 

Apart from a few scramble-ready F-35 planes at Evenes, the fleet’s home base is Orland, in the country’s south-central region. The Evenes Air Base has an air defense battalion and a force protection squadron. In addition, a number of support services have been built in the base. 

Norway will stage its largest military exercise inside the Arctic Circle since the Cold War in March and April. When the exercise Cold Response 2022 begins in the Ofoten area in conjunction with Norway’s NATO allies, it will include some 40,000 soldiers. The Evenes airfield will play a crucial part in the exercise.

Finland and Sweden will also participate in the drills, in addition to NATO countries. Earlier, the Finnish government announced its plan to purchase 64 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace the country’s current fleet of F/A-18 Hornets. 

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