Another step towards integration of the 5th generation – exercise Astral Knight 2019

Deepening the integration of the fifth generation F-35A Lightning II jets was one of the goals for the Astral Knight 2019 joint multinational exercise, that was organized late May and early June 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy, as well as other locations in Croatia, Germany, and Slovenia. The peak of the training missions took place between 3rd and 6th June.

The whole point of the Astral Knight exercise was to enhance the command and control integration, coordination and interoperability of air and land capabilities and overlapping operations into the IAMD enterprise. The training was performed as a combination of live-fly operations and computer-assisted scenarios, together with practicing the air and missile defence of various terrains. Astral Knight involved the airmen, soldiers and sailors from the United States and service members from the Croatian, Italian, and Slovenian armed forces.

The aviation component of the exercise included more than 30 USAF aircraft and 900 airmen – F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-35 Lightning IIs, KC-135 Stratotankers, B-52 Stratofortress and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft; Italian Air Force F-35 Lightning IIs and Eurofighter Typhoons, and also the Croatian MiG-21s. The scenarios were flown in the air space of north Adriatic, shared by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.

U.S. and Italian Air Forces aircraft fly in formation over the Adriatic Sea (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry)

´The benefit of working with other branches and nations for Astral Knight is ensuring regional cooperation of NATO allies,´ said U.S. Air Force Maj. Robert Umholtz, U.S. Air Forces in Europe –Air Forces Africa A37 exercise planner, in the USAF press release, ´This is a U.S. led exercise but the more we integrate 5th as we go forward, the better we’re able to operate as an air force, joint force and coalition partnership. We need to ensure that we have the ability to integrate them fully into our gaming plan, into our exercise and most importantly into our ability to operate if we need to go to war. ´

U.S. Naval Forces Europe supported the exercise with an Arleigh Burke class destroyer and U.S. Army Europe provided soldiers and equipment – 5th Battalion 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment from Germany – to operate the Patriot surface-to-air missile system, that as a part of the exercise, was assigned to protect the Port of Koper. Additionally, the 174th ADA Brigade of the Ohio National Guard participated in the exercise from their location in Divača, Slovenia, running the computer scenarios. The 220th Military Police Company of the Colorado National Guard provided convoy and site security.

F-35 Lightning II mid-air refueling from KC-10 KC-10 Extender (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry)

It was the first time during this exercise, when the USAF and Italian Air Force F-35As worked together with the data exchange through the Multifunction Advanced Data Link, a unique direct communication platform used by the Lightning II fighter, B-2 Spirit bomber and ships equipped with Baseline 9 Aegis Combat System. The MADL provides the huge amount of data are exchanged in a much faster way, significantly enhancing the awareness of the tactical situation between the connected aircraft and the commanding centres. The MADL platform offers also the data exchange between the aircraft and JTAC units or transferring data to HIMAR system for artillery targeting purposes.

More images from the Astral Knight 19 (Aviano Air Base) by Jiří Sofilkanič / Czech Air Spotters:

Information and photos from the official USAF press materials and releases were used.