The US is making a strong push to leverage NATO’s F-35-enabled air power as part of a move to increase, strengthen and expand efforts to deter Russia.
President Biden announced the creation of a new Army headquarters in Poland, an increase in Navy destroyers for Rota, Spain and a move to send two additional squadrons of US F-35s to the Royal Air Force’s Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. A Pentagon report detailing Biden’s announcement at the NATO Summit in Madrid said the “fifth-generation fighters will add to the air support for NATO forces throughout Europe.”
The growing number of F-35s within the US fleet and throughout Europe is an extremely significant development when it comes to further deterrence against Russian expansion.
The US already bases F-35s in Germany, Poland is becoming an F-35 customer and a number of countries such as Germany, Finland and Switzerland are now F-35 customers. These new countries join an existing list of countries operating the F-35 to include Denmark, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and of course the U.K.
What this means is that a growing number of networked F-35s will operate throughout the European continent and further fortify the Eastern Flank. F-35s in both Poland and Germany, for instance, are likely able to reach Russian airspace without much trouble, and certainly UK-based F-35s could get there with some refueling. A squadron typically includes anywhere from 12 to 24 aircraft, therefore the addition of two squadrons represents a substantial increase.
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This is extremely significant in a number of key respects, related to air, ground and sea power. F-35s can of course form an interconnected multi-national force of 5th Generation fighters, in part because of MADL, the aircrafts. common Multifunction Datalink.
MADL, as it is called, enables secure data and intelligence information exchange between all F-35s, a technological pipeline which would enable F-35 countries to form large formations and disperse across a wide operational envelope. Added to this, the F-35s drone-like ISR capabilities could help fortify surveillance efforts in high risk areas, in particular due to its growing ability to network with drones from the cockpit in real-time.
This massively extends the surveillance reach of F-35 formations, and is something greatly expanded by growing abilities for the F-35 to share information with surface and ground units as well. A large, multinational force of F-35s could in effect help drive a multidomain joint attack formation, presenting a threat of great significance to Russia.
Yet another element of additional F-35 placement in Europe is simply a numbers game when it comes to air superiority. For example, Russia’s TASS news service reports that there are at the moment only a few operational 5th-Generation Su-57 aircraft and has plans to acquire roughly 70 more.
Assuming the Su-57 can rival the F-35, and there are no clear indications that it could, Russia simply does not have enough of them to compete for air superiority. NATO and the US, simply in terms of sheer numbers, would be operating large numbers of 5th-generation aircraft against a largely 4th-generation Russian airfleet. The US Air Force, for instance, already has more than 300 F-35As and ships could of course project F-35B and F-35C power from the Baltic Sea.
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.