WASHINGTON — The Air Force's top civilian on Monday hinted the service could deploy a number of F-35As to Europe as early as this summer.
"Now that the F-35 has been declared combat capable, we will deploy our newest fighter to Europe in the not too distant future," said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James during a speech at the Atlantic Council. "Matter of fact, if I were a betting woman, I wouldn't at all be surprised if the F-35 didn't make an appearance, perhaps, next summer. The unique combination of stealth, situational and sensor fusion will play an important role in reassuring allies and providing deterrence."
The trip to Europe would be the first operational overseas deployment of the Air Force's A-model, which officially reached initial combat capability in August.
The service will also send a theater security package of F-15s from Louisiana and Florida Air National Guard units to Europe this spring to conduct training exercises with partners, similar to the deployment of F-22s to Romania last April.
James likely is nearing the end of her tenure as Air Force secretary this January, and plans to deploy the F-35 could change under the new presidential administration. However, she advised her successor to move forward with deployments to Europe that showcase US air dominance, adding that such activities are key for deterring hostile Russian military action that has become more prevalent since its invasion of Crimea.
"Russia is a country that does understand force," she said. "At a time like this, at a time when I believe they are pushing and poking and testing, I think the alliance needs to demonstrate that resolve and show force."
Also of vital importance is US involvement in the Baltic air policing mission – a NATO effort to guard the airspace of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, she said.
President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, have repeatedly advocated for improving relations with Russia.
But James pointed to a number of Russians actions that have been destabilizing, including the development of anti-access, area-denial weapons and increased number of airspace violations. Furthermore, Russia’s use of cyber attacks and proliferation of fake news in Eastern Europe have become even more worrisome given the recent announcement by US intelligence officials that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, she said.
"That marks an extremely troubling development, and one that I’m afraid that we’re going to be dealing with for years to come," she said.
Trump’s transition team met with James for the first time last week.
"They have, for the most part very much in a listening mode, so asking questions, receiving briefings," she said.
"There is a lot of anticipation that there will be additional money coming to defense," said James, who cautioned her successor to maintain a steady stream of funding to increase the size of the active-duty Air Force over the coming fiscal year, calling it the "greatest way" the next Air Force secretary can alleviate readiness concerns.
The service is worried about its ability to fight a high-spectrum conflict against a near-peer competitor like Russia or China. Boosting the active duty force would allow the service to build up mission areas like ISR and cyber, while also alleviating the fighter pilot shortage, she said.
Trump’s Air Force secretary should continue to fund high-end training capabilities and direct money to upgrading training ranges, she said.