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Video Above: F-35s to Europe

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

Faced with the possibility of an immediate Russian invasion of Ukraine, US and NATO leaders are moving quickly to adjust their deterrence posture and move assets into position to respond if needed to Russian aggression.

Troops on Alert

As part of this, the Pentagon has placed as many as 8,500 troops on alert to “ready themselves for a rapid deployment if called upon,” a Pentagon report stated. While the forces are at the moment still inside the US, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the forces would be assigned to the NATO Response Force. Decisions about if and when they deploy is a decision which will be made by NATO, Kirby said.

"We are increasing the alert posture on quite a number of U.S. troops here, stateside, as well as taking a look at what could possibly be moved around on the European continent," Kirby said

NATO Troops

NATO has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]

Force positioning within Eastern Europe could have quite an impact and countries look to fortify or reinforce their borders in preparation for Russian aggression. This could be an important alternative to actually moving armored units and large ground forces into Ukraine as an invasion response force, something which could be seen as provocative and put the US and NATO on a collision course with Russia. 

However, increasing heavy land force presence in other European countries within reach of Ukraine seems like a feasible and intelligent option. Poland could reinforce its borders with substantial US and NATO assets in the form of ground troops, tanks and fighter aircraft in position to respond. Alongside any need to send a message of deterrence to Russia regarding Ukraine, any US and allied maneuvers in Eastern Europe could naturally be aimed at protecting other countries from falling prey to Russian threats should Ukraine fall into Russian hands.

The 8,500 US troops on alert to support NATO could present commanders with potential response options. While 8,500 troops is by no means enough to rival the nearly 1 million -strong Russian Army, NATOs Rapid Reaction Force might be able to seize an airfield or help secure the perimeter surrounding high value assets vulnerable to Russian attack.

NATO Rapid Reaction Force

NATO Rapid Reaction Force

"We have seen a consistent accumulation of combat power by the Russians in the western part of their country around the borders with Ukraine and Belarus," Kirby said. "[Putin] continues to add to his force capability in western Russia and in Belarus. We've seen no signs of de-escalation ... what we're hoping for is a de-escalation. And one of the best ways they could de-escalate the tension would be to remove some of those forces away from Ukraine.

F-35s

As the US and its NATO allies contemplate force positioning on the European continent in response to threats of a Russian invasion into Ukraine, there is a key variable seemingly lurking beneath the radar. What about the F-35?
Should any kind of US and allied F-35 force be massed or gathered in Eastern Europe within reach of Ukraine, it could lead Russian military strategists to “pause” when contemplating the price of an invasion. 

Why not gather a group of allied F-35 near or even in Ukraine and run drills, exercises and combat preparation operations? While NATO and the US might be reluctant to use F-35s to engage or attack Russian forces given concerns about possible escalation, wouldn't the mere presence or demonstration of F-35 power greatly strengthen any kind of US and NATO deterrence posture?

The idea makes sense, particularly in light of the growing number of European countries now operating and acquiring F-35s, all of which can interoperate with one another using secure datalinks. Not only does the US now have operational F-35 squadrons in Europe, but Denmark has received its first plane, Norway and the UK currently fly combat ready F-35s and Poland, Switzerland and Finland are all massively revving up their own force of F-35s. Italy and The Netherlands are also F-35 partners as well.

F-35 Switzerland

F-35 Switzerland

Added to this possibility is the fact that European countries are in close proximity to one another, making it quite possible for F-35s to reach Ukraine from Poland or other Eastern European countries within their existing combat radius.

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Regardless of whether F-35s were actually used in combat against Russian forces, the realistic possibility that “could” be used to counter a Russian invasion is likely to greatly impact the strategic equation. The reasons are clear, as any kind of F-35 defensive force would likely cause real problems for an invading Russian ground Army. 

F-35s would make it very difficult for Russia to operate with any kind of air superiority, and it is not at all clear that Russian Su-57s could rival the F-35 or even exist in sufficient numbers to offer air support to attacking forces. The speed, maneuverability and weapons capability of the F-35 could threaten, stop or even destroy advancing Russian tanks, armored vehicles and ground troops.

Su-57 Jets

Su-57 Fighter Jets

If used intelligently and in sufficient numbers to form a multinational force from the air, F-35s would send a clear message that there would be serious risks and a heavy cost to Russia should it actually invade. Sending large numbers of F-35s within striking range of the Ukrainian-Russian border could generate a significant deterrence effect without needing to deploy thousands of US and NATO ground forces to Ukraine. Russia would likely think very carefully about whether it wanted its ground force to face air attacks from F-35s. It could be enough to change Putin’s mind and actually prevent an invasion.

250 M1A2 Abrams Tanks to Poland

Send More Tanks to Poland Several prominent members of Congress are asking the Pentagon to fast-track sale and delivery of 250 Abrams tanks to Poland to reinforce “NATO’s Eastern flank,” in the face of Russian threats.
Citing the Russian build-up near Ukraine, Representatives Mike Rogers, Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Mike Turner, Ranking member fo the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Lisa McClain, urge Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to expedite the Congressional Notification, Foreign Military Sale, and transfer of 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks to Poland.

M1A2 Abrams Tank

M1A2 Abrams Tank

“Expediting the provision of this capability, especially as Russia builds-up forces around Ukraine, would send an important message to both NATO and the Kremlin,” the letter states.

Poland of course borders Ukraine to the West and could be in position to reinforce Ukrainian defenses or at least signal resolve and military presence in a way that increases the US and NATO deterrence posture. The move may largely be symbolic in some respects, given that Global Firepower military rankings say Russia operates as many as 12,000 tanks. 

However, mass or sheer tank volume matter less than the range and resolution of tank sensors and the precision effects of tank weapons. A much smaller tank force could be in position to prevail against a much larger number of tank should they have precise, accurate and long-range thermal sights and sensors that are superior. 

In that case, a small number of tanks could simply see and destroy much larger numbers of inferior tanks at standoff ranges where they themselves were not detected. This happened during the now famous Gulf War tank battles during which Abrams tanks destroyed large numbers of Iraqi T-72s. 

A T-72B3M tank at the Army 2021 International Military and Technical Forum in Russia, August 26, 2021. Donat Sorokin/TASS via Getty Images

A T-72B3M tank at the Army 2021 International Military and Technical Forum in Russia, August 26, 2021. Donat Sorokin/TASS via Getty Images

In this respect, the question may be how many of Russia’s 12,000 tanks have been modernized such that they could in any way rival or compete with upgraded M1A2 Abrams tanks operating in Poland. How many of Russia’s tanks are greatly upgraded T-72 or T-90s? What kind of range and resolution do their sensors have? 

The answer to this question may well determine who might prevail in a Polish-NATO-Russian tank battle. Beyond the advantage of bolstering deterrence efforts, getting Abrams to Eastern Europe on a faster time frame makes a lot of sense in terms of NATOs overall strategic posture and forward footprint. 
“Helping to equip Poland with the M1A2 tank would serve to displace Soviet-era equipment in the Polish force structure, and thus enhance interoperability with U.S. and NATO forces, while simultaneously strengthening the U.S. industrial base,” the letter says.

-- Kris Osborn is the President and Editor-in-Chief of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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, President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization