Scramble over the Baltic Sea for two Italian F-35A fighter-bombers who faced the raid of two Russian Su-30s who approached, without warning, the limits of the borders with Poland. A face-to-face meeting at an altitude of 12,000 meters with the pilots of both sides who are used to this game of roles which is frequently repeated not only in European skies.
The Russian fighters take off, turn off the transponders (position signals), climb to altitude, passing the “corridors” of airliners, and speed, in this case over the international waters of the Baltic Sea, at the speed of two Machs (twice the speed of sound).
Naturally, from the exact moment of take-off, NATO satellites and spy planes keep an eye on them, as do the military and civil radars of the regions involved as soon as possible (depending on the altitude). When the trajectory of the Russian jets indicates a possible “tangency” with the NATO borders, or a possible violation, the rapid take-off (scramble) command is triggered for the planes responsible for policing and defending the borders of the NATO countries.
Everything as expected, everything already seen: with these raids the Russians test the reaction times of opposing aircraft, while NATO planes implement the strategies established in training.
In this case, on the afternoon of 21 September – as the precious Italmilradar site informs – two F-35As of the Task Force Air-32nd Wing of the Italian Air Force carried out their first scramble from the Malbork air base, in Poland, with the coordination of NATO. The base is southeast of Gdansk.
Those two Su-30s (Flankers for NATO) had to be monitored closely and so in a few minutes the four aircraft found themselves in a patch of sky. The Russian fighters never violated territorial borders and after a while they got tired of being “escorted” by the Italians and veered away from them. Sometimes these “challenge” raids are included in flight plans that take Moscow’s jets from Russian bases to the Kaliningrad enclave, squeezed between Poland and Lithuania.
Before the Italian F-35s took off on alert, it was verified that the flight plan of those two Russian fighters had not been announced to the control towers on this NATO flank.
Now these skirmishes have been going on since the times of the Cold War, but it is clear that since Russia invaded Ukraine every action takes on a much more significant weight.
The day before yesterday, after the Russian fighters had moved away, the two Italian F-35s – as reported by the Public Affairs Office of the Allied Air Command – returned to the Polish base where they had relocated on 15 September. They will soon be joined by another pair of Italian Lightning IIs.
Since 2019, the Italian Air Force has periodically deployed F-35As for NATO Air Policing and Air Shielding missions in Iceland and Estonia. Eurofighters are also currently engaged in the 63rd rotation of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing in Lithuania.
Today, after the first familiarization and training flights of the F35 Lightning, the “Task Force Air – 32nd Wing” reached the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) as part of the “NATO Air Policing (Block 63)” operations.
They will therefore remain in Poland until November, as part of the Air Task Force – 32nd Wing, with the F-35A aircraft of the 32nd Wing of Amendola and the 6th Wing of Ghedi. Air Policing – we read on the Ministry of Defense website – is a NATO operation, managed by the Allied Air Command (Aircom) of Ramstein (Germany) conducted 365 days a year.
The comparison between F-35A and Su-30
But in the event of a hypothetical, very hypothetical, duel between the F-35A and the Su-30, which jet would have the best chance of winning? Apart from the fact that it depends on the skills of the pilots, apart from the fact that dogfights at close range are no longer, in practice, part of the strategies which involve launching missiles from well beyond the sight of the pilots, there are quite a few observers who believe superior in this context is the Russian twin-jet fighter which is “only” fourth and a half generation compared to the single-engine F-35A, which is fifth. On the side of the Russian fighter, online since 1996 (19 years before its rival) and also widely sold to powers such as India and China, both speed and agility in maneuvers and autonomy.
The Stealth concept (offering little visibility to radar) of the US jet in these possible, very possible, close-up dogfights does not help. The costs, net of what is required by the design? About 100 million dollars for the American aircraft and less than 40 million for the Russian one. In reality, the comparison is a close call: the F-35 family also includes short or vertical take-off versions and has been designed for an advanced and futuristic version of air superiority based on networked avionics and computerized systems which also include the use of artificial intelligence.