On 21 September 2023, Italian F-35A Lightning IIs received a sudden signal to lift off to intercept two unidentified aircraft. The news was released to the media a few days later[1]. The mission was successful, with suspicions pointing to machines of Russian origin[2]. The interception task is relatively common in peacetime, but it happens much more often on the Polish border than in other NATO countries.

The question is: what were the Italian F-35s doing over the Polish skies?

Italian aircraft patrol the Polish sky as part of Air Policing on NATO’s eastern flank. The mission began on 1 August 2023 and will last for two months[3]. For the first time, F-35s are stationed at the 22nd Tactical Air Base in Malbork[4]. This provides an excellent opportunity to train ground crew in their familiarity with the new combat system. Interestingly, for the Italian fighters, this is their baptism of fire at the Malbork airfield. They have previously carried out missions in Iceland, among other places[5]. The Italian 32nd Air Wing has achieved IOC (Initial Operational Capability[6]) for the new area of operations[7]. The first two F-35s have been stationed and performing missions at the base since 13 August[8].

The presence of allied combat aviation units in Poland results from the Air Policing mission conducted by NATO, which pursues two important objectives. These are: (1) increasing the presence of international military components in strategically important and sensitive areas of the alliance in Europe and (2) complementing the capabilities of the armed forces of NATO members without specific equipment. Examples of the Polish Air Force’s participation in missions of this type include joint ‘policing’ with the Czech Republic in Slovakian airspace[9] and a similar mission in the Baltic States[10]. Air Policing is a permanent peacetime mission that aims to secure the alliance’s airspace from any violation 24 hours and 365 days a year through constant readiness. NATO currently operates five Air Policing missions[11]. “Baltic States” has been running continuously since 2004, with the air forces of two different NATO countries stationed at Šiauliai air base in Lithuania and Ämari base in Estonia every four months, from where they conduct patrols along the borders of all three Baltic States. The ‘Iceland’ mission has been ongoing since 2008, following the end of a similar US-only mission. A more recent mission is ‘Eastern Adriatic and Western Balkans’. It covers the region of Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia currently patrolled jointly by the Italian and Greek air forces. The fourth mission has been ongoing since 2017 and as a result of a regional agreement under the ‘Benelux’ mission. Denmark and Belgium jointly patrol the airspace of the Benelux countries. Fifth-generation Italian fighter jets arrived in Poland as part of the particularly important Enhanced Air Policing mission.  Following the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the alliance implemented the mission as a form of deterrence and to demonstrate the defensive nature of collective defence capabilities[12]. This is linked to decisions on an increased NATO presence on the eastern flank and steadily expanding contingents of ground troops (now up to brigade level)[13]. The main command for missions using aircraft (NATO Allied Air Force Command) is located at the Ramstein base in Germany.

The diversity of theatres of operations creates additional procedural and logistical challenges. The Italian unit’s fulfilment of the requirements of the ‘Operational Environment’ (a concept mainly used by the US Department of Defence) is essential to carry out the planned tasks[14]. It implies the adaptation of machines, crews and ground support to the atmospheric, climatic and geographical conditions, as well as logistical and technical operations for a given theatre of operations[15]. FOC (Full Operational Capability[16]) will soon be achieved when two more F-35 aircraft are deployed to the base this November[17].

The permanent base location of the Italian 32nd Wing is Amendola Air Base. The unit boasts a long history – in the past they have introduced Italian aviation to military tasks. The first ever reconnaissance combat flight was carried out by an Italian pilot from the 32nd Wing in Africa on 22 October 1911. The flight lasted 61 minutes and was made with a Bleriot XI aircraft. Another special moment for Europe and Italian aviation was the entry into service of the F-35. Italy was the first country to introduce the 5th generation aircraft into the arsenal of European NATO countries in 2016[18].

However, the debut has a much broader context. The Italian Army introduced the system into domestic production relatively early and the leadership position in F-35 deployment was initiated by their first production machine back in 2015[19]. This was the result of the FACO center (Final Assembly and Check Out) at Cameri becoming fully operational with three production lines[20]. The 32nd Wing has carried out missions before and the pilots have experience on the new aircraft, but this is their debut in Poland. Previously, the Italian Air Force carried out Air Policing missions from the 22nd BLT in Malbork on Eurofighters[21].

Currently, the Italian 32nd Wing is operating in a JOINT (multinational) mission. It performs the same tasks together with Polish aircraft. As the leading actor, the first to gain experience in the application of the new system, they are significantly increasing capabilities in the region[22].

However, it should be remembered that this is a situation to which pilots are prepared and accustomed in peacetime conditions. Fortunately, the direct crossing of the Polish air border has not yet occurred[23]. The intercept takes place on the ‘Alpha Scramble’ alert. It means that the pilot on duty in readiness for immediate action gets the signal to start a combat flight[24]. Usually the reason is unusual aircraft behaviour or the flight of a foreign aircraft. Interception usually involves maintaining a close distance to continuously signal with the transponder code and determine the exact location of the object being monitored. This is the case even when the flight plan is known in advance, as it is unknown in what situation conditions will change and the aircraft will become a threat. Combat alarms are not the only opportunity for Polish operators to familiarise themselves with the new design. The Italian wing is additionally intended to carry out training missions to enhance the capabilities of the Polish military[25]. The Polish Air Force is approaching the new modernisation with successive steps.


[1] Kozyra, A. Myśliwce NATO poderwane. Wykryto rosyjskie samoloty. (en. NATO fighters picked up. Russian aircraft detected.) https://wydarzenia.interia.pl/kraj/news-wlosi-w-pilnym-trybie-poderwali-mysliwce-lataly-nad-polska,nId,7048822 [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[2] Kozietański, M. Włoskie myśliwce F-35 przechwyciły nad Polską dwa niezidentyfikowane obiekty. Prawdopodobnie były to rosyjskie samoloty. (en. Elk F-35 fighter jets intercepted two unidentified objects over Poland. They were probably Russian aircraft.) https://dziennikpolski24.pl/wloskie-mysliwce-f35-przechwycily-nad-polska-dwa-niezidentyfikowane-obiekty-prawdopodobnie-byly-to-rosyjskie-samoloty/ar/c1-17922977 [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[3] NATO ENHANCED AIR POLICING-EAP. https://emad.defensa.gob.es/en/operaciones/operaciones-en-el-exterior/37-OTAN-EAP/index.html_2063069299.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[4] Iceland: the TFA 32nd Wing achieves Full Operational Capability. https://en.difesaonline.it/news-forze-armate/missioni/islanda-la-tfa-32nd-wing-raggiunge-la-full-operational-capability [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[5] Colotti, A. MISSIONE IN ISLANDA: TERMINA L’IMPIEGO DELLA TFA 32ND WING. (en. ) https://www.aeronautica.difesa.it/2019/10/25/missione-in-islanda-termina-limpiego-della-tfa-32nd-wing/ [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[6] After Initial Operational Capability (IOC). https://acqnotes.com/acqnote/acquisitions/initial-operational-capability [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[7] Poland: Italian Task Force Air 32nd Wing Reaches I.O.C. https://www.itamilradar.com/2023/09/19/poland-italian-task-force-air-32nd-wing-reaches-i-o-c/ [accessed: 29.09.2023] .

[8] Italy deploys F-35 fighters to Poland in support of NATO deterrence and defence. https://defence-industry.eu/italy-deploys-f-35-fighters-to-poland-in-support-of-nato-deterrence-and-defence/ [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[9] CZECH AND POLISH FIGHTER AIRCRAFT TO SECURE SLOVAKIAN AIRSPACE. https://ac.nato.int/archive/2022/czech-and-polish-fighter-aircraft-to-secure-slovakian-airspace [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[10] Baltic Air Policing Mission. https://www.gov.pl/web/national-defence/baltic-air-policing-mission [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[11] NATO Air Policing: securing Allied airspace. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_132685.htm [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[12] NATO ENHANCED AIR POLICING-EAP. https://emad.defensa.gob.es/en/operaciones/operaciones-en-el-exterior/37-OTAN-EAP/index.html_2063069299.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[13] NATO Multinational Battle Groups On Its Eastern Flank. https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-russia-borders/31923034.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[14] GAO-23-105341, F-35 AIRCRAFT: DOD and the Military Services Need to Reassess the Future Sustainment Strategy. https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-23-105341.pdf [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[15]  After Initial Operational Capability (IOC). https://acqnotes.com/acqnote/acquisitions/initial-operational-capability [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[16]  Full Operational Capability (FOC). https://acqnotes.com/acqnote/acquisitions/full-operational-capability-foc [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[17]  Poland: Italian Task Force Air 32nd Wing Reaches I.O.C. https://www.itamilradar.com/2023/09/19/poland-italian-task-force-air-32nd-wing-reaches-i-o-c/ [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[18] Campion, J. How Italy is leading the way with the F-35A in Europe. https://www.key.aero/article/how-italy-leading-way-f-35a-europe [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[19] Made in Italy – Delivered to the World. https://www.f35.com/f35/global-enterprise/italy.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[20] Eshel, T. New Wings for the Italian Air Force. https://defense-update.com/20161219_italian_airforce.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[21] Sanzani, M. Italian Air Force deploys four Typhoons to Poland for NATO Baltic Air Policing. https://www.blogbeforeflight.net/2022/07/italian-air-force-deploys-eurofighter-typhoons-poland.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[22] Eshel, T. New Wings for the Italian Air Force. https://defense-update.com/20161219_italian_airforce.html [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[23] Koczyński, R. Włosi z F-35 przechwycili dwa rosyjskie myśliwce nad Bałtykiem. Pierwsza taka misja lotników obecnie stacjonujących w Malborku.  (en. Italians with F-35s intercepted two Russian fighters over the Baltic Sea. The first such mission by airmen currently stationed in Malbork.) https://malbork.naszemiasto.pl/wlosi-z-f-35-przechwycili-dwa-rosyjskie-mysliwce-nad/ar/c1-9465661 [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[24] Korsak, E. Kiedy słyszysz „Alpha Scramble”!  (en. When you hear “Alpha Scramble!”) https://pzevo.azurewebsites.net/home/articleshow/35761?t=Kiedy-slyszysz-Alpha-Scramble- [accessed: 29.09.2023].

[25] Borowski, J. Włoscy lotnicy znów w Malborku – tym razem z F-35.  (en. Italian aviators again in Malbork – this time with the F-35.) https://defence24.pl/polityka-obronna/wloscy-lotnicy-znow-w-malborku-tym-razem-z-f-35 [accessed: 29.09.2023].

Tekst powstał w ramach realizacji zadania publicznego zleconego w ramach Rządowego Programu Rozwoju Organizacji Obywatelskich na lata 2018-2030 r. „Bezpieczna Polska jutra – rozwój działań misyjnych Alioth Foundation”.