May 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Air Force has deployed a squadron of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, airmen and equipment to an air base in Italy for exercises and to conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft.
The squadron, which includes the fifth-generation fighter plane, arrived Friday at Aviano Air Base from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. as part of a Theater Security Package. The jets and personnel will remain in Europe for several weeks, according to a U.S. Air Force news release.
"The entire 421st ops and maintenance team are extremely excited for this deployment," Lt. Col. Richard Orzechowski, 421st Fighter Squadron commander, said in a Navy news release. "As the final 388th Fighter Wing squadron to transition to the F-35A, we've been able to leverage the experience of the 4th FS and 34th FS and take the squadron on the road just six months after getting our first jets."
The Theater Security Package is funded through the European Deterrence Initiative that provides "a more robust U.S. military rotational presence in the European theater capable of deterring adversaries and assuring partners and allies of U.S. commitment to regional security," according to the Air Force.
The Utah fighter wings are the Air Force's only combat-capable F-35 units.
"It's a great honor to be part of another milestone for Hill and the F-35 community," said Maj. James Russell, an F-35 pilot with the 419th Fighter Wing. "Locally, this effort is a demonstration of our total force integration construct hard at work between the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings. On a larger scale, it's a great opportunity to showcase our newest fighter platform to our partner nations and assure those nations of our continued support for their safety and security."
F-35A's were sent to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England, as well as the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility, in April 2017 for their first overseas training deployment.
Last November, the 388th Fighter Wing's 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit completed a combat exercise over the Utah Test and Training Range where they tested and evaluated their capabilities to operate the F-35A Lightning II in a deployed environment.
F-35s from Hill Air Force Base were deployed for the first time in April, being sent to the Middle East. The aircraft arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirites and are now part of a coalition that carries out airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan and scattered remnants of the Islamic State.
The F-35 Lightning II is a single-seat, single-engine fighter aircraft with a range of more than 1,350 miles with internal fuel, according to the Air Force. It was introduced to the Air Force in 2016.
The F-35s, as well as F-22 Raptors, are replacing most of the U.S. military fighter fleets. The F-16 and A-10 have been the Air Force's primary fighter jets for more than 20 years. The U.S. Navy will replace the F/A-18 with F-35C for carriers, and the U.S. Marines will replace the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier with the F-35B for short takeoff and vertical landing.
With conventional takeoffs and landings, the F-35A possess a combination of stealth, speed, agility and situational awareness along with lethal long-range, air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry, "making these aircraft the best air dominance fighters in the world," according to the Air Force.
More than 320 aircraft have been delivered to the United States and partner nations, with more than 680 pilots and 6,200 maintenance crewmen trained or in training, according to the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
The U.S. Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin last September finalized a $15.5 billion contract for the production and delivery of 141 F-35s at the lowest per aircraft price in program history: ranging between $89.2 million and $107.7 million for the Air Force, Navy and Marines.