Three nations stage F-35 drills over southern Italy
AMENDOLA AIR BASE, Italy – Italian F-35s flew training flights with American and British F-35s over southern Italy on Tuesday, ending a busy few days for joint training by nations flying the stealth fighter.
The day kicked off with two Italian aircraft taking off from Amendola Air Base in the heel of Italy alongside two RAF F-35Bs, marking the first joint exercise between the nations.
Despite recent revelations about a series of teething problems experienced by the jet, pilots said they were happy with its performance.
“I met the British wing commander yesterday, we talked for ten minutes about a tactical mission that would have been impossible to fly that easily and that quickly with an older jet,” said Maj. Maurizio De Guida, commander of the 13th squadron of Italy’s 32nd Wing.
“We took off and within a few minutes we all knew what we were going to target because of the internal data links. The information sharing is so much easier with the F-35,” said RAF 617 Squadron Wing Commander John Butcher.
Both air forces were using the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), which Italian pilots have previously used to share data with U.S. Air Force F-35s during an exercise in the Mediterranean last month.
Col. Davide Marzinotto, commander of the 32nd Wing, said he hoped the British arrival at Amendola foreshadowed greater base hopping by F-35 users.
“The global logistics support for the aircraft means countries using each others’ bases is a natural consequence, and we hope to send our aircraft to other countries,” he said.
The two RAF aircraft were among the six British F-35s which last month took part in a training deployment to the RAF Akrotiri base in Cyprus before then racking up 14 surveillance sorties over Iraq and Syria.
Butcher said that all six aircraft flew in the anti-ISIS missions. “We did armed overwatch of forces on the ground and it went very well. We were able to fully exploit the capabilities of the aircraft,” he said.
Flying in pairs and not accompanied by the Typhoons based at Akrotiri, the British F-35Bs carried their standard AMRAAM and Paveway 4 internal armaments payload and used all their sensor suite, from radar and infrared to electro-optics, during the missions, Butcher said.
Between that deployment and their arrival in Italy, RAF jets stopped off to train with U.S. and Israeli F-35s, and Butcher said he had had no concerns about the UK’s F-35Bs training with A-versions of the aircraft.
“Once the wheels are up you are the same air system,” he said.
Another bone of contention over the aircraft is the amount of sovereign data F-35 users are forced to share with Lockheed Martin through the ALIS software system, which manages logistics supplies to the aircraft.
Marzinotto acknowledged it was an issue, but said the Italian Air Force had no complaints.
“Every time you use new logistics systems there is a need to learn about it. ALIS is maturing. Sharing information is essential if you want a system that supports your fleet in any part of the world,” he said.
“What is evolving is a system of control over what is essential information to make the global fleet work and what is of national interest and does not need to be shared. That is being done,” he added.
The Italian Air Force now has eight F-35As based at Amendola, with another two training in the United States and one being overhauled at Italy’s final assembly line in Cameri in northern Italy.
“It has effectively opened the maintenance work Cameri is due to offer,” said Marzinotto.
The Italian Navy has meanwhile taken delivery of two F-35Bs, which are training in the United States, part of Italy’s planned total buy of 90 aircraft.
On Tuesday afternoon, four Italian F-35s took off from Amendola to train with four American F-35s arriving from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, where they are temporarily based.
The U.S. Air Force jets are part of a 12-strong group of F-35s from the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which has already teamed with Italian F-35s for a training exercise June.
On Tuesday they flew in for the day, refueling from an Italian Air Force 767 tanker en route. The Italian and U.S. jets used MADL to share data with each other, while relying on Link 16 to talk to two Italian Eurofighters which also participated in the exercise.
“This exercise focused on interoperability,” said one U.S. pilot, who identified himself only by his callsign “Ali.”