New U.S. Jet Fighters Flex Allied Muscle in Europe

By Robert Wall Features Dow Jones Newswires

R.A.F. LAKENHEATH, England--The Pentagon has deployed its newest combat plane, the stealthy F-35A fighter, to Europe for a first overseas training mission in a show of allied strength intended in part to deter Russian aggression.

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The U.S. Air Force deployed eight of the radar-evading jets last month to this British air base, following through on an Obama administration-era project to show support to European allies. It puts in a spotlight the F-35 that drew early criticism from President Donald Trump for its cost.

The jet fighters are training with British Royal Air Force Typhoon jets and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft. The planes, during their stay of several weeks in Europe, also have made excursions to Estonia and Bulgaria, reaching NATO's eastern front.

The drills are part of a broader U.S. military-support effort that started amid Moscow's support for separatist fighters in Ukraine. Washington created in 2014 what it called the European Reassurance Initiative, which grew in importance after Moscow's invasion of Crimea later that year.

The U.S. plans to permanently base F-35As in Europe, but not until after 2020.

Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said one of the goals of the deployment was to "enhance NATO's deterrence posture." Speaking at the jets' arrival ceremony in April, he said the current deployment would lay the groundwork for their full-time operation in England.

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The arrival of the F-35As, also called the Joint Strike Fighter, is the latest in a series of military muscle flexing by the U.S. in Europe. Late last year, the U.S. Army began restocking a Cold War-era storage facility in the Netherlands and other European locations with tanks. The U.S. started rotating a heavy brigade through Europe this year, and NATO units have moved into the Baltics.

After what appeared to be a brief thaw after the election of President Trump, U.S.-Russia relations plunged again. Mr. Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base used by Russia in April, in retaliation for the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian regime and has played a significant military role supporting it in the Syrian war.

Russia has taken to the skies with its own saber rattling. It started flying long-range combat aircraft near U.S. airspace last month, and on Wednesday four Russian aircraft, including two bombers, flew across international airspace near Alaska. In response to the latest incident, the U.S. launched two jet fighters to identify and intercept the Russian aircraft, according to Pentagon officials.

Russia also has stepped up long-range air patrols near the border of European NATO countries, including the U.K.

The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program to date, and its mission to England is providing commanders with an opportunity to take the new aircraft through its paces.

"What you do with a new fighter aircraft is you start to branch out and learn the capabilities," said Air Force Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, deputy of operations for the 34th Fighter Squadron, which brought the planes to the U.K.

The Pentagon plans to buy more than 2,000 F-35s for the Air Force and in slightly different versions for the Navy and Marine Corps. The stealthy plane is equipped with advanced sensors to help pilots detect targets early.

The costs of each of the roughly $100 million planes has gradually fallen as Lockheed Martin Corp. builds more of them. For Lockheed, the mission could also bolster sales efforts after the controversy flared about cost. Mr. Trump hasn't publicly criticized the program after the Pentagon and Lockheed reached a deal on planned cost reductions.

The jet is designed to become the backbone of the U.S. Air Force. It is designed not as the Air Force's top-end performer, but as a versatile plane that can perform many tasks.

Several allied air forces, including NATO members Norway and the Netherlands, are also buyers. The U.K. is buying the F-35B, a jump-jet version already in service with the U.S. Marine Corps that can take off and land vertically. The Pentagon and Lockheed hope to sway other countries such as Finland and Belgium to buy the plane as well.

Russia and China also are developing advanced, radar-evading jets, though neither country so far has deployed them operationally.

Write to Robert Wall at robert.wall@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 05, 2017 05:55 ET (09:55 GMT)