US F-35 fighter jets sent to NATO's front line as Russia invaded Ukraine were out looking for missiles able to threaten planes

  • As Russia invaded Ukraine, the US Air Force sent F-35 fighter jets to NATO's front line — the alliance's eastern edge.

  • One of their tasks was to look for Russian missiles that could threaten planes.

  • "The jet is always sensing, gathering information," a wing commander told Air Force Times.

US Air Force F-35 stealth fighters were deployed to NATO's eastern edge at the onset of Russia's invasion of Ukraine for air patrol missions that involved looking for surface-to-air missile systems and aircraft, Air Force Times reported on Friday.

Pilots from the Utah-based 388th and 419th Fighter Wings were sent to Germany in February 2022 along with fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters as Russian forces were preparing to launch their full-scale assault on Ukraine. They were then sent to carry out missions over the Baltic states as the conflict kicked off.

"We are facing a dynamic environment, and the deployment of F-35s to NATO's eastern flank enhances our defensive posture and amplifies the Alliance's interoperability," the commander of US Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa said at the time.

The F-35s were tasked with absorbing data from potentially adversarial surface-to-air missiles and tracking them to help NATO forces better understand the threat landscape. According to the Air Force Times report, this mission allowed the Air Force to assess how it approaches short-notice deployments and highlighted how the fighter jets can adjust quickly to unfamiliar threats.

The F-35s tracked missile systems in Ukraine and Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering NATO ally Poland.

"We weren't crossing the border. We're not shooting anything or dropping anything," 388th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Craig Andrle told Air Force Times in a recent interview. "But the jet is always sensing, gathering information. And it was doing that very, very well."

US Air Forces in Europe said at the time that the fighter jets were working from forward operating locations at bases in Estonia, Lithuania, and Romania. The military added that the aircraft strengthens communication and command and control capabilities, giving NATO the ability to maintain "air dominance" in contested spaces.

During the missions, the F-35 didn't always identify military equipment because some items — like air defense systems — can hide or disguise their presence in the field. Andrle told Air Force Times that one example of this involved Russia's S-300, which are long-range surface-to-air missiles systems.

He said that there were cases where the fighter jet wouldn't identify the missile system as an S-300 — even though intelligence had already assessed what it was and where it was — because the weapon seemed to be operating in a mode that was unfamiliar to the US. The aircraft notified troops of the object's existence, and then they tweaked the data for the jet, allowing NATO planes to better understand what they're seeing.

"We're sharing data and making sure that everybody has awareness — surface-to-air and air-to-air — of what's out there in the environment," 388th Operations Group Commander Col. Brad Bashore told the Air Force Times.

The stealth F-35 is sometimes called the quarterback and is intended to be the backbone of the US military's fleet of fighter jets. It is slated to replace some aging aircraft, but the Pentagon has endured a whole slew of headaches with the plane's development, including years of delays and high costs.

The military believes it's worth the hassle though. Sleek-looking and extremely fast, the F-35 has been described by the Air Force as an "agile, versatile, high-performance" jet that combines its stealth with "unprecedented situational awareness."

"The F-35A's advanced sensor package is designed to gather, fuse and distribute more information than any fighter in history, giving operators a decisive advantage over all adversaries," the Air Force says of the jet.

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