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F-35A to Make First Training Deployment to Europe

The U.S. Air Force is dispatching F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to Europe in the aircraft's first training deployment to the continent, officials said.

A "small number" of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made fifth-generation stealth fighters will fly overseas for several weeks beginning this weekend, according to a release Friday from the Defense Department.

The move is part of the Pentagon's larger push to deter Russian military aggression in the region.

"This is something leaders have planned and suggested for a number of months," Capt. Mark Graff told Military.com.

Last year, the Air Force deployed the F-22 Raptor, a twin-engine stealth fighter, for military exercises. Indeed, given the previous deployment of a stealth fighter to Europe, Graff described the forthcoming F-35 deployment to the continent as "routine."

The F-35s are scheduled to fly with other U.S. and NATO aircraft for "long-planned training," according to a Defense Department release.

Officials on background said the aircraft are coming from Hill Air Force Base in Utah -- the only base with operational F-35As.

The Air Force didn't disclose the number of aircraft involved, but said it would be small and that the mission is part of the so-called European Reassurance Initiative to support allies in the region following Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

U.S. Air Forces Europe officials plan to release more information -- such as where the aircraft will fly training exercises -- in the next few weeks, Graff said. The drills will assist "in refining requirements for eventually basing the F-35A in Europe, which is scheduled to receive the aircraft in the early 2020s," according to the release.

The move comes days after the U.S. exercised its military might in various missions across the globe.

The Air Force on Thursday dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in Afghanistan against the Islamic State, just one week after the Navy launched cruise missiles at an air base in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. Last Sunday, the Navy's Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group moved toward the Korean Peninsula to deter North Korea's Kim Jong-Un from ballistic missile tests.

Russia criticized the U.S. for its missile strike on Shayrat air base. Amid the building tension, President Donald Trump this week reaffirmed his commitment to NATO. Meanwhile, Russia continues to intimidate neighboring countries with its non-sanctioned military activity in Ukraine.  

In December, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hinted that a rotation of F-35s would deploy to Europe amid security threats from Russia. She said after being approved to fly initial operations in August, the F-35 would be ready to deploy to the European theater next summer in line with how "allies expect it will transform the battlefield, even in the ... anti-access area denial environment," she said.

RELATED: First F-35A Fighters to Deploy to Pacific, General Says

Officials also plan an F-35 theater security package rotation, or TSP, to the Asia-Pacific region soon. Such a rotation includes forward-deployed aircraft and units that conduct missions across the continent over six months to reassure allies.

Maj. Gen. Jerry D. Harris Jr., the service's deputy chief of staff for strategic plans, programs and requirements, testified before the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces in February, saying the Air Force is prepared to send an operational squadron this calendar year "to include a Theater Security Package Deployment to Pacific Command."

A squadron of the Marine Corps' F-35B variant arrived in Iwakuni, Japan, in January. Japan's Air Self-Defense Force received its first F-35A recently, after it was presented during a ceremony at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, in September. Japan intends to buy 42 Joint Strike Fighters.

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