Low-income European nations near Russia are buying F-35 jets

The Lockheed Martin F-35A, a fifth-generation fighter, has been progressively securing new contracts across Europe. This is remarkable as the orders are not just limited to initial program partners but extend to several other countries as well. 

Danish F-35s have no weapons package, they'll use F-16's weapons
Photo credit: Danish Armed Forces

This aircraft has received purchase orders from countries in Western Europe, encompassing Switzerland and Germany. The increase in its demand extends to lower-income Eastern European nations near NATO’s frontlines with Russia. 

The Czech Republic

In late September, the Czech government approved the purchase of 24 F-35As under a contract worth around $6.5 billion. According to Prime Minister Petr Fiala, deliveries should commence in 2031, and the entire order should be fulfilled by 2035. 

RAF Lakenheath in the UK is expected to host new US nukes in 2024 - British F-35
Photo by Senior Airman Koby I. Saunders

Fiala believes these stealth jets would strengthen partnerships within NATO. The U.S. State Department had approved the sale in June, however, the 11-year delivery duration is due to a combination of a massive backlog in global orders and production-related issues causing consistent delays. 

Discussing the reason behind choosing F-35As, the Prime minister emphasized that their functionality and lifespan outweigh the cost factor. He believes these jets are the best option for meeting the tactical air force requirements of the Czech Republic Army in the forthcoming decades. 

The biggest Czech purchase

Norwegian F-35s refuel in 'hot pit' and deploy from highways
Photo by Ole Andreas Vekve

The purchase carrying a significant price tag is the largest in the country’s history. The jets are projected to replace the presently minimal fleet of 14 Gripen fourth-generation fighters, which are leased from Sweden. Although the F-35 is a much more advanced fighter, it would lead to an exponential increase in operational expenses due to its size and maintenance needs. 

Despite the cost, with fourth-generation fighters becoming increasingly outdated, the F-35 is arguably the only viable option with its unparalleled capabilities within the NATO compatibility range. 

Romania

Correspondingly, the Romanian Defence Ministry sought Parliament’s approval in late September to purchase 32 F-35As, marking another significant arms procurement in the country’s history. 

The Romanian Air Force depends on second-hand F-16 fighters, primarily bought from Portugal and Norway. It expects these older aircraft to retire by the early to mid-2030s. 

Despite the F-35’s high operational cost, Romania’s choice is a break from its past preference for cost-effective aviation solutions. This decision indicates a shift in defense strategy, favoring advanced capabilities over operational economy.

There will now be six air-to-air missiles in the F-35 'belly'
Photo by Bartek Bera

Operational challenges 

Given the political uncertainty surrounding neighboring Ukraine, Romania’s acquisition of F-35s, along with the presence of advanced aircraft in nearby countries like Poland, will pose operational challenges for Russian Air defense. 

Countries in Northern Europe have been proactive in adopting F-35s. Given recent procurements, Norway now boasts an exclusively fifth-generation fleet, while Denmark and Finland are moving in the same direction. 

However, financial constraints, particularly in certain Southern European countries, and France’s reluctance to consider foreign fighter classes have posed some hurdles to the F-35’s wider adoption in Europe. 

The limited success of the Rafale

Rafale, France’s home-grown fourth-generation fighter, though actively promoted across Europe, has achieved only limited success, with only Greece and Croatia on board so far. 

New munition under the French Rafale F4.1 wings - the AASM 1000
Photo credit: French MoD

Even with these minor obstacles, the F-35’s appeal continues to surge on the European continent. Both Germany and the U.S. initiated joint production of the aircraft’s fuselages in 2023, further enhancing the F-35’s standing in Europe. 

The Scholtz administration in Germany marked a key turning point in the history of F-35’s proliferation in Europe, which is a noteworthy departure from the previous administration’s stance on the same.

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