USAF F-35As Briefly Deploy to Estonia

An Air Force F-35 Lightning II from the Hill AFB, Utah, is refueled by a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker during a flight to Estonia, April 25, 2017. USAF photo by SrA. Christine Groening.

Tallinn, Estonia Two US F-35A strike fighters arrived Tuesday at Amari AB, Estonia, but then returned to their deployed location at RAF Lakenheath, England, a couple hours later.

“The purpose was to show their presence,” Col. Jaak Tarien, the Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces, told Air Force Magazine.

The two F-35s, which deployed to Europe from Hill AFB, Utah, on April 15, and an accompanying KC-135 tanker, from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, England, arrived around 1:30 p.m. local time and left around 4 p.m. Lt. Col. George Watkins, commander of Hill’s 34th Fighter Squadron, told the Estonian newspaper Postimees the strike fighters did not land anywhere else during the three-hour sortie and had to tank once. He said they plan to visit other NATO countries but did not specify where.

Amari air base is located 130 miles from the Russian border. The arrival of US fifth generation aircraft is significant because it “shows both the strength of defense cooperation between two nations and the level of our Amari air base,” Tarien added in the Estonian Armed Forces press release.

“The visit of the most modern fighters is a clear sign of the special allied relationship and the powerful presence of the United States in Europe,” Estonian Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna said in the statement.

Estonia, a country with a 200-mile common border with Russia, has been a NATO member since 2004. Until 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine, the other NATO countries had minimal allied military presence in Estonia. However, today there are roughly 1,400 allied troops from the United States, UK, Germany, and others operating in Estonia.

Editor’s Note: Priit Simson is an Estonian defense reporter based in Tallinn.