Video Above: F-35s To Europe
The US Air Force has now established its first F-35 presence on the European continent to expand multinational networking, increase collective deterrence and streamline war preparations across a growing number of F-35 aligned nations.
Having a presence of US F-35s will enable concepts of operation, tactics and strategies otherwise only possible in the US. European F-35 partners such as The Netherlands, Italy, UK, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Switzerland and now Finland will be positioned to leverage and build upon US progress with multi-domain networking.
“This will make it easier for us to do some of those things we have done in the states - now it will build the muscle memory we need in theater to respond quickly,” Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interesting interview.
Part of the emerging deterrence strategy and broadly configured European continent collective security included a specific, multinational meeting among F-35 Air Chiefs from member nations.
“We addressed some of the challenges with the weapons systems, because we have gone from the nuances of a new weapons system to operationalizing it. We shared tips on how to optimize the F-35 for the whole joint force,” Harrigian explained.
The dialogue at the F-35 Users Group centered upon operational tips, tactics, techniques and procedures, maintenance, logistics and security procedures. Harrigian spoke at length about the deterrence value of additional interconnected F-35s as each F-35 nation can align one another to not only “mass” force as may be needed but also expand multi-node, cross domain information sharing. Targeting operations as well as direct combat engagements can take place much more efficiently and quickly across vast, otherwise disconnected areas with a group of F-35s.
At the same time, the value of a multinational F-35 force brings significant strategic advantages as well, in part because it greatly strengthens existing military alliances between the US and its key allied partners.
“An unrealized true key strategic benefit of the F-35 is the partnership which accrues from a variety of different allied and partner nations all operating the same state of the art 5th-Gen aircraft,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told The National Interest.
Expanding Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program (JADC2) Into a Multi-National Framework
The concept could be described in terms of an effort to expand the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program (JADC2) into a multi-national framework to leverage each F-35 nation as a contributing partner or “node” within a broad, meshed network of otherwise disconnected combat assets and platforms.
“The F-35 is going to be a critical link enabling the concept of JADC2, as it can automatically share information capitalizing upon the aircraft’s unique sensor capabilities,” Deptula said.
Should the US, NATO and its allied force wish to avoid taking a potentially escalatory step of ending large numbers of ground forces to the Russian-Ukrainian border, there is an interesting argument for how they might merely choose to use surveillance planes and demonstrate air power, long-range precision weapons and the threat of Close Air Support to stop or eliminate invading Russian forces.
Close Air Support (CAS)
Such a strategic posture, likely to be fortified by visible air power demonstrations to support deterrence efforts, would show a mix of high-altitude bombing superiority with drones, reconnaissance planes and fixed-wing fighter jets in position to provide Close Air Support to defensive forces.
Now armed with US-provided Javelin anti-tank forces, a smaller and lighter Ukrainian defense force could stage hit and run guerilla-type attacks against Russian tanks and advancing armored vehicles. Such an effort, particularly if supported by long-range rockets and missiles capable of hitting Russian targets on the move, would be likely to succeed in the event Ukrainian forces were supported by US, NATO and allied Close Air Support.
The CAS mission, historically thought of in terms of the highly cherished A-10 aircraft, has in recent years been fortified by the advent of additional fixed wing assets such as the F-35.
“It’s important to recognize the CAS is a mission but not an aircraft. Thinking it can only be done with an A10 is anachronistic and dangerous. Our capability to conduct CAS has exploded by the ability to deliver precision-guided effects,” retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told the National interest in an interview.
The F-35 is capable of providing CAS to ground forces by virtue of its speed, long-range precision-guided air-to-ground weapons and low altitude maneuverability. Using its speed to elude incoming ground fire, it seems possible that an F-35 could maneuver close enough to the ground to fire its 25mm cannon upon Russian tanks, armored vehicles or forces on the move.
Fixed wing planes have demonstrated an ability to perform the CAS mission, as fighter jets werer used in this capacity over Iraq and developers of the F-35 multi-role fighter have specifically engineered the aircraft to perform the mission. Most of all, as mentioned by Deptula, an aircraft such as the F-35 is now armed with precision-guided weaponry and long range sensors sufficient to destroy ground forces from higher altitudes at greater stand-off ranges.
“As I look at our force, we continue to find opportunities largely across Europe. We feel comfortable with our abilities from the Baltics down into Romania. We have had continued interaction which has allowed us to keep our close air support capabilities at the right level,” Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Short Range Air Defense
One interesting question of great relevance to this equation would be whether Russian ground forces have any kind of mobile, US-like Short Range Air Defense Capability.
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Should the US and NATO establish air superiority over Russian air defenses with stealth and 5th-gen aircraft dominance, Russian forces might seek to deploy mobile, ground-fired anti-aircraft weapons.
Do they have anything comparable to the US SHORAD program which now arms Strykers with HELLFIRE and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. However, even if this is the case ,they might prove effective against drones and helicopters but would likely struggle to track and destroy faster, higher-altitude F-35s able to project precision ground attack from safer altitudes.
This might be yet another key reason why a 5th-generation presence with US, NATO and European F-35s could by themselves provide enough reasons for Russian decision-makers to “pause” when considering a possible ground attack.
The aircraft are likely in position to send back real-time images of force positioning along Russia’s side of the border to ensure ground and air forces might best be positioned to defend a Russian incursion.
“We’ve got to make sure we are ready. Readiness is the key to conventional deterrence .. Russians are well aware of the capabilities that NATO possesses in the context of air power,” Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview.
Ukrainian, US and NATO forces in Eastern Europe are likely working on a range of potential strategies with which to deter Russian forces without necessarily massing a huge ground force along the Russian border. Should NATO, Ukraine and other US allies not wish to forward deploy a large mechanized ground force.
Several things are likely informing this equation alongside surveillance planes to include the threat of US and NATO airpower. Certainly European F-35s and other forward positioned fixed wing air assets could be key, as any Russian invasion into Ukraine would likely need air superiority to ensure sustained progress or an ability to hold territory.
With this in mind, it is not entirely clear if Russia has enough operational Su-57s with which to challenge US and European F-35s. Not only are more countries such as Finland choosing the F-35, but the US has now forward-positioned its own F-35s on the European continent well within range of reaching Ukraine.
Larger numbers of operational F-35s are also appearing in key allied F-35 countries such as Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, creating a multi-national force of 5th-generation aircraft. The existence and presence of this force, certain to be demonstrated and potentially even flown by US and allied forces within striking range, may be enough by itself to deter Russian action. When faced with a US, NATO and European F-35 force, advancing Russian forces would likely face little chance of success, as they would simply be destroyed from the air.
Advancing Russian forces, should they have ground war overmatch against a smaller, more lightly armed Ukrainian force, could be extremely vulnerable to high-altitude bombing and Close Air Attacks from bombers and F-35s. In and of itself, the prospect of US and allied air superiority might be enough to prevent Russian and avoid any need to forward deploy a large NATO ground force to Ukraine.
Demonstrating air-power to prevent a Russian attack must also be managed carefully by military decision makers and officers at the edge of combat, Harrigian said.
“We all want diplomacy to work. Let’s drive down the possibility of miscalculation,” Harrigian said.
Agile Combat Employment
Having a growing fleet of interoperable F-35s strategically positioned throughout the European continent is a fast-emerging strategic reality which the US and its allied partners and NATO members are making sure to leverage to their advantage.
This means not only practicing and refining key interoperability among allied F-35 nations but also advancing an expeditionary posture to ensure assets and lethal combat teams can quickly deploy where they need to go. Attack operations will need to leverage forward positioning, proximity to the enemy and readiness in order to ensure a sought after advantage. Air Force senior leaders explain that new operational paradigms are needed to respond to a new and fast-changing threat environment.
“We need to generate dilemmas for the adversary. Given the capabilities developed by our adversaries, the way we were operating was not going to be survivable. How can we be more agile in terms of how we move stuff around?” Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview.
Harrigian pointed out an interesting strategic juxtaposition between the Pacific and European theaters when it comes to tactics and potential operations.
“Instead of tyranny of distance, we are tyranny of proximity. We are close,” he said, referring to the relative small country size and short travel distances in Europe.
Basing, access, interoperability and rapid deployment all inform the conceptual thrust of the Agile Combat Employment effort, which seeks to ensure that lethal, ready and well-prepared units can mobilize and attack quickly when and where they are needed.
Preparing for this means finding ways to empower decision-makers at the edge to eliminate bureaucracy and streamline operations. Harrigian’s command philosophy is based upon extending certain decision-making latitude to some of his trusted subordinates in position to know what their units might most need to prepare for combat.
“Senior officers should lead by providing guidance and giving and empowering the people in positions that are on the front lines to translate that guidance into what is most relevant for their units,” he said.
In one instance, Harrigian explained, he allowed a small unit of aircraft to travel to Estonia for interoperability and deterrence operations along the Russian border.
“They went to Estonia with eight jets and operated for four to five days. Let’s empower our units to get out there and execute and build confidence by generating combat power to the next level,” Harrigian explained.
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.