Related Video Above: F-35s to Eurpoe
A quick look at a map of the Baltic Sea raises new possibilities for US and NATO allied Air Forces in Northern Europe given the rapid arrival of new F-35s.
Just last year, Denmark received its first F-35, Norway conducted F-35 training missions, the Royal Netherlands Air Force declared its F-35s operational, Poland increased its F-35 force, US and UK carriers and surface ships conducted joint-F-35 missions and Finland and Switzerland recently chose the F-35 for its force.
Deterring or Destroying Russian Forces
All of these events, unfolding over just this past year, paint a new picture when it comes to any ability to deter or destroy Russian forces from the Baltic Sea. This concentration of F-35 power in Northern Europe introduces the possibility that the US and its allies could, if necessary, quickly launch a massive 5th-generation air assault into Russian airspace should that instantly become necessary.
Not only does Finland itself share a border with Russia, but the Russian coastline and the Baltic states border the Baltic Sea as well. This places Russia easily within the combat attack radius of F-35s from Poland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands and possibly even the UK.
This highly impactful tactical reality, greatly enhanced by the F-35s multi-national Multifunction Advanced Data Link connecting all F-35s, does not even take ocean launched F-35s into account. Certainly US and allied amphibs or even carriers could also launch F-35s from areas in the Baltic Sea as well.
This possibility may have been part of the thinking this past year when US and UK F-35s conducted nearly 1,300 sorties together to improve readiness, interoperability and warfare preparations. As part of this exercise, the UK Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth launched F-35Bs from both the US Marine Corps and Royal Air Force. “
Nine nations have F-35s operating from a base on their home soil, 12 services have declared Initial Operational Capability and six services have employed F-35s in combat,” a statement from Lockheed Martin on F-35 activities in 2021 said.
The rapid arrival of new F-35s brings a widely read and quoted 2016 Rand Corporation study called “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank, Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics.” The published report, emerging from extensive wargaming, made the determination that the Baltic states would be quickly overrun by Russian forces in the event of any invasion. The study recommends that the Pentagon substantially reinforce its combat presence and forward-deployment activities in the region.
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“The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Fortunately, it will not require Herculean effort to avoid such a failure.
Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states,” the study’s abstract states.
However, what about considering this 2016 assessment in a 2022 context? Certainly, in 2016, not many F-35s were operating in Northern Europe as they are today, by large margins. Would the proximity, access and lethality of a nearby multi-national F-35 force change this equation? The quick answer would seem to be …absolutely.
Considering that Russia does not operate as many of its own Su-57 5th-generation aircraft, which may not even compare to F-35s in terms of performance, a dispersed, yet networked force of US and European F-35 launched from the air and sea might be very well positioned to slow down, stop or even destroy a Russian ground invasion of the Baltics by quickly establishing air superiority.
Could an expectation of future F-35 arrivals in 2016 have informed Pentagon decisions about sending more forces to the area? Seems quite possible, yet at the time Finland had not chosen the F-35, multi-national European F-35 interoperability had not been fully established, Poland had not committed to larger numbers of the jets and Denmark, Norway and The Netherlands were much earlier in their F-35 developmental processes and the US-UK F-35 synergy had not been demonstrated.
Related File Video Above: F-35 maker Lockheed Martin has been engineering F-35s to carry more weapons.
Regardless, the strategic circumstance when it comes to deterring or destroying any kind of Russian attack across Eastern Europe has been changed in a profound and measurable way given the amount of arriving F-35s.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.