Air Force Begins Moving First Permanent F-35 Squadron into Europe

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An F-35 Lightning II and two F-16 Fighting Falcons
An F-35 Lightning II (middle) and two F-16 Fighting Falcons fly to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Darin Russell)

The Air Force last week stood up its first permanent F-35A Lightning II squadron in Europe, a first for the U.S. and a major step toward stationing the advanced fighter jets on the continent.

The 495th Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 48th Fighter Wing and also known as the Valkyries, was reactivated at the RAF Lakenheath base in England on Friday morning, the Air Force said in a press release.

The squadron's first F-35s are scheduled to arrive at the base later this year, and it will eventually have 27 of the fighter jets and about 60 personnel, including pilots. The creation of the squadron marks the first time U.S. F-35s have permanently been stationed in Europe.

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"There has been a great deal of work done to get us this far, but there's a lot more that needs to be done prior to getting jets this winter," Lt. Col. Ian McLaughlin, the squadron's new commander, said at the reactivation ceremony.

Lakenheath has hosted F-35s in the past, and its existing infrastructure was a key reason the base was chosen in 2015 to house the squadron. The Air Force's ties with the U.K.'s Royal Air Force, which also flies the F-35, and opportunities for combined training at Lakenheath were other reasons it was chosen.

The Air Force has been preparing Lakenheath for the arrival of the F-35s. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is upgrading the base's airfield, as well as adding a new F-35A flight simulator, hangars and storage facilities.

The service also plans to add a second F-35 squadron to Lakenheath in the future.

Since 2017, F-35s have periodically deployed to European bases on a temporary basis for missions such as exercises or deterrence operations. F-35s and airmen from Hill Air Force Base in Utah flew to Mont-de-Marsan Air Base in France in May for exercises with NATO allies such as Atlantic Trident 21.

And in 2019, a squadron of F-35s from Hill deployed to Aviano Air Base in Italy as part of a theater security package under the European Deterrence Initiative, which is an effort to bolster U.S. relationships on the continent to counter Russian aggression.

It also comes at a time when NATO is eyeing a greater presence of the fifth-generation fighter. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, who heads U.S. European Command and is NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, said earlier this year that the coalition will steadily build up its F-35 capability throughout this decade.

The U.S. and other NATO allies could have 450 F-35s stationed in Europe by 2030, Wolters predicted during a June Atlantic Council discussion. Allies such as the U.K., Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark have at least 49 F-35s, and dozens more are on the way.

This marks the first time the 495th has been operational since it was inactivated in 1991.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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