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The U.S. Air Force’s F-35 joint strike fighter will soon fly over Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East, according to a top general.

“The F35A, the Air Force version, we’re doing fantastic,” Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle told reporters in Washington Friday morning. “We are going to get that airplane out on the road. I would anticipate it moving and deploying in the spring and summertime. Europe is certainly a place that I think we would like to send that airplane so I can see that happening. We have plans to send it to the Pacific as well and we have plans to send it to the Middle East in the not too distant future as well.”

Those deployments are a long time coming for the most expensive weapons system ever procured by the Pentagon. The development of the aircraft was hampered initially, Carlisle acknowledged, by an attempt to produce the plans while still working to engineer and develop the weapons system. But now that they are operational, the fighters should bring cutting-edge stealth technology combined with the ability to target threats on the ground to regions where U.S. policymakers are increasingly worried about Russian and Chinese aggression.

Herbert, the head of Air Combat Command, said the top priorities for the deployments are to non-combat zones where the fighters can play a valuable role with respect to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. That includes in Ukraine and NATO-allied countries worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist goals.

“It’s not combat missions, we’re not dropping ordnance,” he said. “We are doing ISR, we are doing air policing, we are doing deterrence, and so I include that as a demand signal … they have a demand signal for more forces that right now we’re not meeting because we’re too deployed in too many places.”

The new jets also will support counter-ISIS operations in Syria, “a dense threat environment,” in which fighters have to carry out their missions while monitoring Russian forces and potential surface-to-air missile threats from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“If you’re flying an airplane in that kind of an environment you can say, ‘well, we’re pretty confident that that SAM system is not going to do anything,’ but when something happens inside your airplane that gives you an indication that that system is active, you have to be ready to do what you need to do to defend yourselves,” Carlisle said. “The systems that the Russians and the Syrians have over there are active systems. They’re active systems. We try to deconflict. We try to make sure that they know that they need to not, certainly, illuminate our aircraft, but those systems are operating in that environment.”



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