USAF Aircraft from Across Europe Join in on ACE Exercise

Aircraft from every flying wing in U.S. Air Forces in Europe kicked off Astral Knight 23-6 late last week, the latest in a series of exercises across the continent focused on Agile Combat Employment. 

F-16s, F-35s, KC-135s, and a C-130J are all flying in the exercise from forward operating bases in Finland and Lithuania, according to a USAFE release. From there, Airmen will participate in operations in the Arctic and Baltics, focusing on “proactive and reactive asset movements.” 

The following wings are involved in the exercise: 

  • 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, U.K. 
  • 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano Air Base, Italy 
  • 52nd Fighter Wing, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany 
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, U.K. 
  • 86th Airlift Wing, Ramstein Air Base, Germany 
  • 435th Air Ground Operations Wing, Ramstein Air Base, Germany 

At Rovaniemi Air Base, Finland, there are: 

  • F-16s from Spangdahlem 
  • a C-130J from Ramstein 
  • a KC-135 from Mildenhall 
  • F/A-18s from the Finnish Air Force 

At Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, there are: 

  • F-35s from Lakenheath 
  • F-16s from Aviano 
  • a KC-135 from Mildenhall 

According to U.S. European Command, forces from Sweden and Latvia will participate as well. The exercise is scheduled to run from Aug. 18-31.

Agile Combat Employment is the Air Force’s operating concept in which Airmen and aircraft disperse from large central bases and operate from smaller, more austere locations in a “hub-and-spoke” manner to complicate an adversary’s targeting. 

The concept, which first emerged in the Indo-Pacific, has quickly become a central tenet of Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s vision for the service, and USAFE commander Gen. James B. Hecker recently cited it as one of his top priorities for implementing in the region. 

Dating back to the end of the Cold War, allied countries used to have a well-practiced ability to service and even re-arm any NATO aircraft that landed at a NATO base, but that capability has “atrophied,” Hecker said in a recent meeting with reporters. 

“We are working to get that back,” Hecker said. To do it, NATO will provision “20-25 bases … in strategic locations around Europe” with the means to support a wide variety of allied aircraft. He declined to specify which bases. 

The U.S. Air Force has operated from Šiauliai in Lithuania relatively frequently and poured resources into the base as part of the European Deterrence Initiative. In 2020, officials noted that the U.S. had invested more than $27 million in 18 separate projects at Šiauliai over the last several years. More recently, F-15Es and F-35s operated from there in 2022 as part of the NATO air policing mission. 

USAF forces have operated from Rovaniemi in Finland, located at the edge of the Arctic Circle, on a less regular basis. While the base was part of the Arctic Challenge Exercise spread across Scandanavia earlier this year, no American aircraft operated from there. In January 2022, a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 flew alongside Finnish fighters after taking off from Rovaniemi, and Reserve KC-135s flew from there in Arctic Challenge Exercise 2021. 

“Astral Knight will continue to strengthen ally and partner interoperability while validating new ways to deploy and maneuver assets during a crisis or conflict,” Lt. Gen. John D. Lamontagne, deputy commander of USAFE, said in a statement. “Regular exercises, like AK, and our permanent forward presence are essential to projecting a credible deterrence to any future act of aggression against the alliance.” 

Agile Combat Employment-related concepts have been part of recent U.S. Air Force exercises in Europe including Air Defender 2023, Defender Europe 23, and Falcon Strike 2022. F-35s and F-22s deployed to the continent have also conducted ACE operations out of countries like North Macedonia and Estonia