Video Above: Could F-35s Deter Russia from Invading Ukraine?
US F-35s are heading to NATOs’ “Eastern Flank” after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the movement of up to eight of the 5th-generation stealth jets Eastward from Germany.
A Pentagon report says Austin has also approved sending 800 infantry soldiers from Italy to the Baltics and sent as many as 20 Apache helicopters to the Baltics as well. As part of these overall force maneuvers, the Pentagon is sending 12 Apache helicopters from Greece to Poland.
All of this comes on top of recent maneuvers which have included sending thousands of troops to Poland, Stryker companies to Hungary and Bulgaria and putting 8,500 US NATO supporting rapid reaction forces on alert.
F-35s in Eastern Europe
The exact location of the F-35s is not known, likely for obvious security reasons, yet moving F-35s farther East makes enormous strategic sense for a number of reasons. Of course the aircraft can function as a deterrent against any Russian movement farther Westward from Ukraine, yet placing F-35s in Eastern Europe will likely put them within a single mission strike range combat radius for the jets.
This means F-35s launched from Eastern Europe would likely be positioned to reach Ukraine or even parts of Russia, and loiter a bit over targets, without needing to refuel in the air. This places 5th-generation stealth technology directly upon Russia’s doorstep well within range of attacking Russian ground troops or even destroying air defenses over Russian territory. This also puts US F-35s in position to intercept, track or even destroy Russian aircraft and fighter jets should they move into NATO areas or dangerously provoke US allies.
Placing F-35s along highly threatened or otherwise vulnerable border areas seems to add invaluable protection. Given that Russia is known to operate a massive ground force consisting of as many as 12,000 tanks and up to 1 million soldiers, sheer numbers or “mass” would seem to favor Russia should they make an aggressive move Eastward. However, multiple F-35s changes this equation.
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For instance, should there be a smaller number of US and allied troops in Poland or the Baltics potentially vulnerable to being overrun by a larger Russian ground force, a collection of F-35s could completely reshape the tactical equation. Should NATO allies defending against a Russian incursion achieve air supremacy with F-35s, advancing Russian ground forces would be extremely vulnerable from the air.
An F-35s air dropped bombs, precision-guided air-to-ground missiles or even 25mm cannon could destroy Russian armored vehilces potentialy ill equipped to target fast-moving F-35s from the ground.
As for achieving air supremacy with F-35s over parts of Eastern Europe, that seems entirely realistic. For instance, even if Russia’s 5th-generation stealth Su-57 were comparable to the F-35, something which is by no means guaranteed, there simply are not enough of them to counterbalance a multinational NATO force of F-35s equipped with long range sensing technology to find and attack Russian aircraft at safer standoff distances. Multiple public reports, including one from The National Interest, say Russia currently operates roughly 12 Su-57s with plans to acquire 70 more in coming years. A combination of Apache attack helicopters and F-35s would seem to be extremely lethal, as they would compliment one another with specific tactical advantages.
Could F-35s Deter Russia from Invading Ukraine?
Should an F-35 succeed in establishing air superiority, or even pockets of air superiority, then Apache attack helicopters could “hover” above Russian ground forces and destroy armored vehicles with precision-guided Hellfire tank-killing missiles from distances up to eight km.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.