The U.S. Air Force's First Europe-Based F-35A Squadron Has Been Activated

RAF Lakenheath in England is set to receive two USAF F-35A squadrons, with the first jets slated to begin arriving this winter.

USAF F-35A during an air demonstration
SAC Tim Laurence / MOD © Crown copyright

The U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing announced Friday that it has reactivated the 495th Fighter Squadron, known as the “Valkyries,” today, at the symbolically specific time of "exactly 8:49 and 50 seconds." The unit will be the first U.S. Air Force F-35A squadron in Europe, or anywhere outside the U.S., really. Its activation, which The War Zone wrote about when it was first planned last year, was timed to coincide with its designation as a fighter squadron 30 years ago today. The squadron's inventory will eventually consist of 27 F-35A Lightning II aircraft, according to the Air Force.

RAF Lakenheath, located about 70 miles northeast of London, will receive the squadron's aircraft when they begin to arrive later this year. The base is home to the squadron's parent unit, the 48th Fighter Wing, which includes the F-15E Strike Eagles of 492nd Fighter Squadron "Madhatters" and the 494th Fighter Squadron "Panthers," as well as F-15C/Ds belonging to the 493rd Fighter Squadron "Grim Reapers."

U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Cedrique Oldaker

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. James “Rusty” Russell, previous 495th Fighter Squadron commander, prepares to unfurl the guidon during the squadron's reactivation at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, October 1, 2021.

The commander of the newly reactivated 495th is Lt. Col. Ian D. McLaughlin. In a statement from U.S. Air Forces Europe, Lt. Col. MacGlaughlin said, “Today is an exciting day. There has been a great deal of work done to get us this far, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done prior to getting jets this winter. The 495th has a proud history and we’re excited to take the guidon forward to start building the foundation for first USAF F-35As stationed in Europe.”

Last month, Breaking Defense reported that Gen. Tod D. Wolters, Commander, U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, outlined a plan for NATO to have some 450 F-35s based at 12 locations in Europe. Breaking Defense listed the bases and dates as:

  • United Kingdom (RAF Marham and RAF Lakenheath starting in 2021)
  • Netherlands (Volkel, in 2022 and Leeuwarden TBD)
  • Denmark (Skrydstrup, in 2023)
  • Italy (Amendola and Ghedi in 2022)
  • Norway (Ørland and Evenes in 2022)
  • Belgium (Florennes in 2025 and Kleine-Brogel in 2027)
  • Poland (Łask in 2026, Świdwin TBD)

Though this will be the first permanent basing of USAF F-35As to Europe, it will by no means be the first time the type has operated there in USAF markings. As we noted at the time, the Air Force's first operational deployment of the aircraft to Europe came in 2017. The Air Force's F-35 community saw its first combat in the Middle East in 2019, when The War Zone's Joe Trevithick reported: "An unspecified number of F-35As touched down at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates ... on April 15, 2019," before launching their first airstrikes on April 30.

U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew

F-35A Lightning II aircraft assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, land at RAF Lakenheath, England, April 15, 2017.

Earlier this year, the Air Force formally announced its decision on a new name for the 495th Fighter Squadron. Before its late-1991 deactivation, the squadron flew F-111 Aardvarks, a Cold War-era swing-wing fighter-bomber whose flight characteristics we wrote about in 2016. But the nickname the squadron carried then — "The Thundervarks" — clearly wasn't suitable for a unit that now flies the stealthy 5th-generation multirole F-35. In December 2020, the 48th FW opened a vote on five possible names — Archangels, Sabres, Sentinels, and Swordsmen, and Valkyries — before announcing in February 2021 that Valkyries had won.

In Norse mythology, Valkyries — Old Norse for "choosers of the slain" — were servants of Odin who determined who lived and died in battle. At the time of the name's selection, Lt. Col. McGlaughlin said, “‘Valkyries’ epitomizes the force’s move toward more inclusivity and equally represents the fifth-generation stealth fighter’s air superiority ... Like the Valkyries themselves, we’ll be vital to determining the fate of our adversaries in the battlespace.” 

The squadron's retained its motto — "Mala Ipsa Nova," or "Bad news itself" — suggesting the 495th is serious about living up to its new moniker.

Although we are not certain if this is the final plan at this time, it was previously indicated that once the second F-35A squadron is fully established at the RAF Lakenheath, F-15C/D operations will end. 

USAF

On F-15C and two F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in their special commemorative paint refuel from a KC-135.

At this time, it appears that the 493rd FS will transition from the Eagle to the Lightning II, with two squadrons of F-35As serving alongside two squadrons of F-15Es. Together, the units would represent an incredibly potent forward-based air combat force. RAF Lakenheath's squadrons are some of the most heavily tasked in the entire force already. With the addition of the F-35, as well as upgraded F-15Es present, it will only be more so.  

Contact the author: Brian@thedrive.com