The F-35 Lightning II, America’s most advanced fighter jet, was tested in Eastern Europe during Russia’s offensive in Ukraine in 2022. US F-35A units arrived in support of NATO and accumulated valuable experience on the battlefield.

The mission in Eastern Europe

The main objective of the F-35s in Eastern Europe was to collect as much electronic information as possible from surface-to-air missiles and aircraft in the region to build a map to guide NATO operations. If the situation spreads to NATO member countries, its role would also be adding military might to defend the alliance.

F-35 in Europe: What NATO learned on the Eastern Front

The F-35s performed their intelligence-gathering mission to great effect, providing an accurate picture of friendly and enemy forces in the area and locating and identifying surface-to-air missile sites.

Communication and adaptation

This mission allowed the US Air Force to hone its new near-term deployment approach and improve the F-35’s ability to communicate with the joint force and quickly adapt to unknown threats. In addition, it provided a new perspective of what still needs to be improved in the planes to face possible future combats with Russia or China.

The F-35 also proved capable of adapting to situations where it could not recognize objects due to digital evasion tactics used by enemy air defense systems. Once the data was updated and uploaded back to the plane, the F-35s could geolocate those threats and avoid being surprised.

Agile operations and flexibility

F-35 in Europe: What NATO learned on the Eastern Front

The F-35s proved to be more flexible than expected in terms of connectivity and server dependency. This is a breakthrough for the US Air Force, which is looking to implement “combat agile employment”—rapid operations across multiple regions with minimal manpower and resources.

The deployment also served to identify aspects that require improvements, such as the size of the personnel and the need to make lighter and more modular spare parts packages to facilitate their transport in the region.

NATO connectivity

The F-35’s ability to connect with other NATO aircraft was hailed as a “big win” for the alliance. It is expected that by 2030, NATO members will have more than 400 F-35 aircraft stationed across Europe, making them the lead in any potential future conflict in the region.