Italy has become the first NATO member to deploy its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, in support of the alliance's Baltic Air Policing mission - having arrived earlier this month to replace German Air Force Eurofighter EF-2000s.
The Italian Air Force took over the responsibility of NATO's ongoing Baltic Air Policing mission on May 3, following a handover ceremony at Ämari Air Base between the service and the German Air Force. A NATO release stated that German EF-2000s were scrambled "almost three dozen times" since the multi-role fighters began their rotation in September 2020. Italian Air Force F-35As will now undertake the same role for the next four months as part of the ongoing NATO mission.
The presence of F-35 aircraft in NATO’s wider Air Policing mission is not unique however, with Italy and subsequently Norway deploying to Iceland in 2019. Italy has also recently completed two rotations leading Baltic Air Policing at Šiauliai, Lithuania, where its Eurofighter detachment handed over the lead to a Spanish Eurofighter deployment on April 29.
Established in 2004 following the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO, the Baltic Air Policing mission was initially centred on Šiauliai Air Base but was expanded to include Ämari Air Base in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
According to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Italy has a programme of record for 60 F-35A and 30 F-35B aircraft. Significant programme milestones include the first Italian-produced F-35 taking flight at Fort Worth, Texas, in 2015; the delivery of the first F-35B to the Italian Navy in 2018 and the Italian Air Force’s declaration of initial operational capability on the conventional take-off and landing 'A' variant the same year.