Worried about vulnerable airbases, a US ally landed a F-35A stealth fighter on a highway for the first time in NATO's newest member

  • Norway's military did something that's never been done before and landed a F-35A on a highway for the first time.

  • The exercise showed a flexible solution for militaries worried about having vulnerable airbases and runways.

  • For years, the US and others have been experimenting with non-traditional airstrips as a way to disperse forces.

Norway made history this week by landing a F-35A stealth fighter jet on the highway for the first time, showcasing a flexible solution for militaries worried about vulnerable airbases.

The Norwegian Armed Forces said two F-35As landed on a highway in neighboring Finland — a fellow NATO member and also the latest country to join the military alliance — on Thursday during a training exercise with Finnish F-18s. After landing, the F-35s were refueled with their engines running (known as hot-pit refueling) before the fighter jets quickly took off again.

"This is a milestone. Not only for the Norwegian Air Force, but also for the Nordic countries, and for NATO. This demonstrates our ability to execute a concept of dispersal", said Maj. Gen. Rolf Folland, chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, in a statement.

"So by being able to use small airfields — and now motorways —  increases our survivability in war," Folland added. "In addition, this is also a demonstration of the exciting development we have initiated within the military-air cooperation in the Nordic region."

Two Norwegian F-35As.
Two Norwegian F-35As.Eivind Byre, Norwegian Armed Forces

Norway's military praised the F-35, a highly advanced fifth-generation aircraft, in its announcement on the successful highway exercise, but it said that the fighter jets are hamstrung by how long they can operate without a resupply of fuel, weapons, and ground support. 

Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen, Norway's chief of defense, said that the highway demonstration underscored deep cooperation among the Nordic countries.

"Finland has been a close partner for a long time, and now also an ally. Their straight and wide highways means that we can further develop our concept for dispersal," said Folland. "The aim of the concept is to make it more challenging for an enemy to take out our aircraft when on ground. If such a concept is to work, we must map out all possibilities, and practice them."

Norwegian F-35A taking off from a highway in Finland for the first time.
Norwegian F-35A taking off from a highway in Finland for the first time.Ole Andreas Vekve, Norwegian Armed Forces

Though the landing was a first, the concept of operating military aircraft on a highway is nothing new. The US military has been doing this for years as part of its Agile Combat Employment efforts, which are focused on the idea that forces can be dispersed by using both traditional and non-traditional airstrips so that it's more difficult for an enemy to suppress air power in strikes on known, fixed airbases.

The US military and its partners put the idea to work on European highways, and then in 2021, a US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack plane first demonstrated this concept in the US when one landed on a Michigan highway.

This capability has been showcased in several different ways since. Earlier this year, the military landed multiple aircraft — including a MC-130J Commando II, a MQ-9 Reaper drone, and MH-6M Little Bird helicopters — on a highway in rural Wyoming.

And non-traditional airstrips also extend beyond the highway. The military landed a Reaper drone on a dirt strip in Texas this past summer, something the A-10 has also done before, and Air Force special operators are even looking at beaches as an option.

Norwegian F-35A taking off from a highway in Finland for the first time.
Norwegian F-35A taking off from a highway in Finland for the first time.Ole Andreas Vekve, Norwegian Armed Forces

While the demonstration in Finland on Thursday marked a first for the F-35A, it's not the first time an F-35 variant has landed on a highway.

Lockheed Martin makes three versions of the aircraft, and the US military has previously conducted highway landings with the F-35B, which is a short-takeoff/vertical landing jet used by the Marine Corps at smaller airfields and aboard amphibious assault ships. In August, for instance, the Marines landed an F-35B on the Old Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California. The F-35A is used by the Air Force while the F-35C is employed by the Navy and Marine Corps aboard carriers.

US military officials have asserted that these efforts to utilize non-traditional landing strips, such as highways, are a response to threats that American adversaries — like Russia and China — could pose to traditional airbases and runways in the event of war.

These demonstrations are an "acknowledgement that our adversaries have watched the American way of war for several decades and they are going to hold our initial staging bases and our forward operating bases at risk," Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said earlier this month, according to previous Insider reporting.

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