On June 17 two F-35A fifth generation fighters from the Vermont Air National Guard landed in Petrovec Military Airport near the city of Skopje, North Macedonia, carrying live AIM-120 air to air missiles. Flights by fighters with live air to air missiles are relatively rare, and release of footage of them has consistently been seen as an indicator of efforts to signal an adversary at times of high tensions, in this case Russia. Located in southeastern Europe North Macedonia became the 30th NATO member state in March 2020 and is ideally located for operations against Russian forces in Ukraine, which has been at the centre of tensions between Moscow and Washington since the outbreak of war in the country on February 24. NATO member states have responded to Russia’s initiation of military operations against its neighbour not only with deliveries of several billion dollars worth of armaments to the Ukrainian military and various militia groups, but also with economic warfare measures and an escalation of force deployments to Eastern Europe.
North Macedonian Defence Minister lavjanka Petrovska commented on the deployment of F-35s: “Operations of the F-35 from the airports in the Republic of North Macedonia is the most evident example of strategic partnership and mutual trust between the U.S. and the Republic of North Macedonia. It shows our commitment and readiness to face unpredictable operational requirements in this complex international environment.” The F-35 is one of just two fifth generation fighters in production and fielded at squadron level strength anywhere in the world, alongside the Chinese J-20, with Russia’s long delayed program to field a similarly advanced aircraft having yet to provide its air force with a single full strength unit. The F-35 was primarily designed for strike roles, and is limited to carrying just four air to air missiles internally. It is considered well suited to air defence suppression missions, however, which is a particularly valued capability due to Russia’s focus on ground based defence systems which compensate with their quantity and sophistication for the relatively small size of the Russian fighter fleet.
F-35s were notably both assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard 134th Fighter Squadron rather than the U.S. Air Force, with guardsman Lieutenant Colonel John Macrae stating regarding the deployment: “It is because of North Macedonia’s membership as a NATO ally that we can share the security that comes from air policing missions and the rapid deployment of advanced capabilities of the F-35 platform as demonstrated today. North Macedonia provides NATO air forces training and resources through Petrovec military airport and Krivolak training area that we need to maintain our readiness. And NATO air forces, in turn, have a chance to train alongside your air wing and army to ensure the present and future security of North Macedonia, the Balkan region, and Europe as a whole.”
Reenforcing its own frontier in Eastern Europe, the Russian Air Force redeployed its top fighter the Su-35 and S-400 air defence systems from the country’s Far Eastern regions to the territory of allied Belarus. The Su-35 uses L-Band AESA radars and the Irbis-E radar reportedly developed specifically with countering stealth targets in mind, while the S-400 was also developed to provide counter stealth capabilities. Both have seen their first combat against enemy aircraft in Ukraine. The F-35 itself is notoriously difficult for radars to lock onto at longer ranges, although over 800 defects with the aircraft among other issues mean it is still considered far from ready for high intensity combat. The Pentagon cut orders for the class by 35 percent for 2023, although it is still expected to form a fast growing portion of NATO fleets facing Russia on its western borders particularly as European NATO members supplement American deployments with their own F-35 orders.