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Video Above: F-35s to Europe

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

US Air Force RC-135 surveillance planes have been flying key missions along the Ukrainian-Russian border to monitor troop activity, track movements and ensure readiness in the event of attack.

Should the US, NATO and its allied force wish to avoid taking a potentially escalatory step of sending 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 and F-22.

“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.

An F-35A Lightning II test aircraft released AMRAAM® missiles and AIM-9X® SIDEWINDER™ missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire 2018 test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

An F-35A Lightning II test aircraft released AMRAAM® missiles and AIM-9X® SIDEWINDER™ missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire 2018 test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Fixed wing planes have demonstrated an ability to perform the CAS mission, as the F-22 was 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.

Russian SHORAD (Short Range Air Defense Capability)

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. 

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. 

AGM-114B Hellfire missile

An AGM-114B Hellfire missile is launched from an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, attached to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Eight (HSC-8), during a live fire exercise in San Clemente, Calif., Feb. 4, 2015. HSC-8 provides vertical lift Search and Rescue, Logistics, Anti-Surface Warfare, Special Operations Forces Support, and Combat Search and Rescue capabilities for Carrier Air Wing Eleven (CVW-11) in support of the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and Carrier Strike Group Eleven (CSG-11) operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young/Released)

F-35s

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.

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“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.

Russian Air Defenses

US and allied air operations, deterrence exercises, training and war preparations will not be limited, deterred or in any way reduced by the existence of Russian built S-300 and S-400 air defenses bordering areas of Eastern Europe, senior US leaders said .

“We have continued to execute operations in international waters and airspace and that has not changed in the Baltics or the Black Sea. We are going to operate in both of those locations with the US Navy and their partner Navies,” 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 a recent video interview.

In a general sense absent specifics, Harrigian added the interesting comment that there are a “variety of ways through which to render air defenses ineffective.” Harrigian mentioned no specifics, yet he could have been referring to known stealth attributes such as a low-radar cross section configuration, radar absorbent coating materials, EW jamming technologies or simply speed and maneuverability. 

Even if an advanced Russian air defense system could discern that some kind of attack asset what “there” or entering the area, there is little to no indication that even the most advanced air defenses would be able to sustain a sufficiently narrow and continuous track to actually succeed in hitting the stealth aircraft with any kind of precision or accuracy.

Harrigian’s statements, while of course stopping well short of adding any technological specifics as to how Russian air defenses could be eluded or defeated, seem quite significant given how much has been made of the capabilities of Russian-built air defenses. 

There is widely discussed consensus that upgraded Russian air defenses are increasingly linked as “nodes” to one other through digital networking, leverage faster, high-speed computing and now operate with an improved ability to track and attack even some stealth aircraft within their field of regard.

Newer Russian air defenses are also described as being able to hit longer ranges and sustain a target track of air assets moving at high speeds. However, despite all of what could be called a measure of “hype” and “alarm” about Russian air defenses, the US Air Force and its allies are clear that they will not be deterred when it comes to conducting operations in international airspace.

Air supremacy in any major engagement with Russia over Ukraine would likely need to be established, something likely to be impacted by the effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses. However, regardless of Ukraine’s air defenses, a sufficient presence of US and allied F-35s could quite likely overmatch Russian Su-57s in both performance and fleet size such that air supremacy could be established.

These emerging tactical and strategic realities may be part of why Russia might take a measure of pause when contemplating an invasion of Ukraine. Despite the size and lethality of Russia’s tank and armored vehicle force, securing Ukrainian territory of any kind could prove quite difficult for Russian forces operating without air supremacy. The proximity of US and allied 5th-generation assets launched from land or sea could be well positioned and close enough to respond quickly in the event of any attempted Russian take over.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization