14 Air Forces, 150 Warplanes & Mission Russia! US F-35s Join ‘Biggest’ Multinational Arctic Drills As NATO Flexes Muscles

For the very first time, the US Force F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jets are debuting in what is known as the Arctic’s premier military drill, the ‘Arctic Challenge Exercise,’ at a time of escalating tensions with Russia.

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Over the next two weeks, more than two dozen US Air Force jets and tankers will participate in the drills, which began on May 29 and will last through June 9. The Arctic drills will feature 150 aircraft from 14 nations and take place at bases across Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Airmen from US Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada’s 414th Combat Training “Red Flag” Squadron earlier traveled to Lule Air Base in Sweden to work with the planners. This is the first time US F-35s are taking part in these drills, with Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands all sending F-35s as well, Air and Space Forces Magazine reported.

The US Air Force said in a press release: “By training and conducting realistic exercises in the High North, like Arctic Challenge Exercise 2023, US forces and those of Allied and Partner nations hone skills, fine-tune interoperability, nurture key relationships, and acclimate to the inherent challenges posed by fighting in the Arctic’s extreme conditions.”

The drills will be keenly watched by Russia as 12 of the 14 participating nations are NATO members. The participation by F-35 is also significant as it is the only fifth-generation stealth fighter jet available with NATO countries, and the recent drills will allow the members to train their fourth and fifth-generation fighter jets together.

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File Image: F-35 Lightning II at the Nellis AFB

The aircraft’s debut in a multinational drill close to Russia could also be a move aimed at power projection. However, the F-35 is frequently pressed into the air patrolling over NATO’s eastern flank.

Earlier this year, the USAF deployed the F-35 fighter jet to Thule Air Base in Greenland, its northernmost military installation in the world, for the first time in history. The Thule Air Base, located just 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, plays a significant strategic role against countries like Russia.

The deployment was made as part of the ‘Noble Defender’ air operation over the Arctic conducted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) comprising the US and Canada.

The F-35 fighter jets appear to have been given a larger and more comprehensive role by the USAF, particularly in the north. Two F-35A Lightning II squadrons were established at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska by spring 2022. At present, the Eielson AFB has 54 F-35 fighter aircraft.

Drills Hosted By Finland Raising Stakes In Arctic

Moreover, another significant “first” about the 2023 edition of Arctic Challenger drills is that it is hosted by NATO’s new entrant, Finland, which shares a more than 1,300 kilometers border with Russia.

The Kremlin had earlier asserted that it considers Finland’s integration into NATO as an “escalation” and “encroachment on Russia’s security and national interests.” NATO countries vowed to defend their 31st member, Finland, the addition of which has doubled the land border shared between the US-led NATO and Russia.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and the three Nordic nations began annual Arctic Challenge exercises in 2013. It has now expanded to become one of the biggest aerial exercises in the Arctic region. Among the nations taking part this year are the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic.

According to Colonel Henrik Elo of the Finnish Air Force, the exercise began with simulations of defensive operations to defend airspace from invaders and eventually included aggressive components like air-to-ground attacks.

“We currently have the first big rotation underway,” Colonel Elo said. “As the exercise progresses, the scenarios get progressively more difficult. This is the biggest one of these exercises organized so far.” The colonel further said being able to “coordinate with our NATO allies and partners on the performance of the different equipment is significant.”


The fighter-jet training exercise will occur in Finland’s Rovaniemi and Pirkkala, Sweden’s Lulea, and Norway’s Orland. The NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, which can monitor an area nearly the size of Poland, will also participate in the drill.

File Image: US Fighter Jets

Although the US had already been expanding its reach and influence in the high north, especially the Arctic region, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further sped up this process as NATO together seeks to integrate its collective defense operations in regions close to Russia.

The Arctic Challenge Exercise is the latest in a string of European drills. Early this month, A-10s from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri’s 442nd Fighter Wing, split between Zaragosa Air Base, Spain, and Thessaloniki Air Base, Greece, participated in NATO’s DEFENDER 2023 exercise.

In addition, around 100 US Air National Guard aircraft, including F-35, F-16, F-15, A-10, KC-135, KC-46, C-130, and C-17s, are slated to take part in the German-led Air Defender 23 exercise, which will start on June 12. Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Latvia will host operations together.