Days After Su-57 Destruction, F-35 Appears In A Mountain Hangar To Defend From Possible UAV Attacks

A Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) F-35 aircraft has been photographed in a newly activated mountain hangar, possibly to protect these expensive and cutting-edge stealth fighters from adversary attacks.

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After being dormant for nearly forty years, the mountain hangar at Bardufoss Air Station was reactivated on June 13, 2024, and the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s (RNoAF) F-35 aircraft were moved there. 

According to reports, Norway’s Bardufoss Air Station is manned by the 131 Air Wing of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and was designed to provide enhanced protection to combat aircraft.

The refurbished mountain hangar, which has been updated for modern operational usage, is expected to contribute to enhanced national and ally fighter aircraft activity in the Indre-Troms region over time.

The war in Ukraine has exposed how susceptible warplanes are to kamikaze drone strikes when they are parked on their apron and not secured inside a hardened shelter.

The recent development comes days after a fifth-generation aircraft of the Russian Air Force, which is often compared to the F-35, i.e., the Su-57 Felon, was destroyed in a Ukrainian strike. The strike was reportedly carried out on a military base in the Astrakhan region nearly 600 kilometers (372 miles) behind the front lines.

Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency (GUR) released satellite images on its Telegram channel to substantiate their claim. The Su-57 appeared undamaged on June 7, but by June 8, evidence of a strike was visible, with craters and fire damage surrounding the aircraft. This was the first-ever destruction of the aircraft, which had not even made a proper combat debut.

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There have been several instances where drone strikes conducted by cheap and expendable drones have knocked out high-end, expensive combat aircraft, putting them temporarily or permanently out of service. Ukraine, for one, has caused extensive damage to Russian aircraft parked in hangars. 

This may have influenced Norway’s decision to reactivate a hardened shelter for its most advanced F-35 fighters, which have replaced the older F-16 Fighting Falcons in Norwegian service.

Norway is not the first country to opt to move its advanced aircraft to such safety. According to publicly available information, several countries are believed to be using underground shelters for their aircraft, including China, Italy, North Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, Iran, Vietnam, South Africa, and Pakistan. 

Underground shelters are considered better than ground-based hardened shelters. An underground hangar is typically buried in a mountainside to provide better protection. While Norway operated these hangars way back in history, the revival of these hardened mountain hangars now also aids NATO’s dispersed planned operations.

Dispersing The Air Operations

Additionally, Norway also has its dispersal concept, which aims to have multiple bases for operational flexibility beyond the primary Ørland base. As part of this concept, the Norwegian Armed Forces announced in January 2024 that two of its F-35 fighter jets landed at Sola base.

“Sola is precisely such a base, which also has some military infrastructure,” stated the Norwegian Armed Forces in an official statement referring to the dispersal concept.

Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35s in the underground/mountain complex at Bardufoss Air Base (via X)

Moreover, Brigadier Tron Strand, head of the Joint Air Operations Center (JAOC), said, “The air station plays an important role in the further development of Norwegian, Nordic, and allied air power. The ability to disperse and quickly move air forces has a high focus in NATO through the development of the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept.”

This idea is referred to as Agile Combat Employment inside NATO. It dates back to the Cold War and has been progressively regaining popularity despite a lingering threat of high-intensity warfare. 

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It is believed that dispersed operations, which make use of makeshift road bases or civilian airfields to multiple operational sites, enable an air force to impede enemy targeting during a fight. This idea essentially combines temporary operating bases with already-existing air stations to efficiently distribute resources and provide combat air power.

At least two RNoAF F-35A aircraft were stationed there and used the hangar to verify the operating concept, according to photos made public by the Forsvaret.

Explaining the strategic importance of the Bardufoss, Colonel Eirik Stueland, commander of 131 Air Wing, said, “Bardufoss airport is well suited to take a prominent role in the distribution concept.”

“At Bardufoss, due to the existing infrastructure, we will also be able to play a larger role in an initial mobilization phase. The mountain facility can also be used to receive allies,” he added.

In addition to meeting immediate operational needs, investments in facilities like those at Bardufoss are an essential component of long-term strategic planning and demonstrate the value of both dispersal and reinforced shelters in modern military strategy by ensuring that air units can function successfully even in the face of modern and evolving threats.