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Video Above: Could F-35s Deter Russia from Invading Ukraine?

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

“We will, if we must, defend every inch of NATO territory,” were the words Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke in Brussels, Belgium at NATO headquarters. 

In a press conference following a meeting with NATO leaders, Austin was clear that Russian forces are now “approaching the border with Ukraine.” Although public statements from the Russian leadership continue to stress that Russian troops will be leaving the region following their exercises, US intelligence cited by Austin indicates that in fact the opposite is true. Austin said that the US believes Russia now operates as many as 150,000 troops now moving closer to Ukraine.

“Russian forces are approaching the border with Ukraine. The Russians have added more combat and support aircraft and have sharpened their readiness in the Black Sea. They're even stockpiling blood supplies,” Austin said. "I was a soldier myself not that long ago," he said. "I know firsthand that you don't do these sorts of things for no reason. And you certainly don't do them if you're getting ready to pack up and go home." 

Ukraine Forces

Ukrainian forces have been carrying out exercises amid concerns of a Russian invasion

While Austin said the US is still very much open to continued dialogue with Russia to achieve a peaceful and diplomatic solution, he appeared much less optimistic that Russia might share this sentiment. 

Austin said he was"satisfied in the knowledge that we will be sure-footed in the face of aggression, but dedicated, as always, to the prospect of peace. There is nothing inevitable about this looming conflict. It can still be averted. The path of diplomacy may be difficult, but it is still worth the trek." 

Added to the present concern are reports from CNN that satellite photos show Russian forces now working on a bridge near Ukraine which would enable tanks to enter the country. (Several hours later, CNN reported that satellite photos were showing the bridge had been removed). 

Russian T-14 Armata tanks make their way to Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade

Russian T-14 Armata tanks make their way to Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade

Regardless, adding bridges or other avenues of attack is extremely significant, as much is known about the mobility challenges associated with the kind of heavy armor used by tanks. Vehicles the weight of Russian T-14 Armata tanks and upgraded T-90 and T-72 tanks are unlikely to be able to pass certain bridges or access areas not able to accommodate the Russian vehicles. Therefore, this development might indeed indicate that Russia is now preparing for an imminent invasion of Ukraine with heavy mechanized forces, something Ukrainian forces would be quite challenged to stop. 

Global Firepower states that Russia operates as many as 12,000 tanks, however it is unclear how many of them may be their most advanced T-14s or upgraded older vehicles. Regardless, in terms of sheer mass and land-power projection, any kind of large scale armored Russian invasion would likely overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, even if they are armed with anti-tank javelin missiles. Javelin missiles may be even less effective in Eastern Ukraine given that much of the area is flat, open terrain and therefore not areas where dismounted units could hide and conduct “hit and run” kinds of anti-tank attacks. Javelin armed defensive forces in the East would likely be seen by invading Russian forces at great distances. 

These are likely several reasons why the Pentagon appears to be drawing its clear line when it comes to defending NATO and adding troops to Eastern Europe. As part of an effort to defend NATO, Austin said Stryker vehicles would be going to Bulgaria. 

US F-35s land in Germany to deter Russia, support NATO

The US Air Force has sent an undisclosed number of 5th-generation stealth F-35A aircraft to Germany as part of a clear mission to reinforce deterrence against Russia, strengthen interoperability with allies and reassure European partners that the US stands firmly behind NATO.

US Air Force officials have confirmed to Warrior Maven that US Air Force F-35s from the US have now arrived in Germany.

The force of F-35s have arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany along with eight F-15Es and six KC-135 tankers. This development could arguably change the European balance of power in a significant way. Interestingly, the arriving F-35s are not from the first European-based US F-35 at the Royal Air Force’s Lakenheath AFB in the United Kingdom  

“F-35A Lightning II aircraft from the 34th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah are agile, versatile, high-performance, 9g capable multirole fighters that combine stealth, sensor fusion and unprecedented situational awareness. The aircraft are equipped for a variety of missions to deter aggression and defend Allies should deterrence fail,” a statement from US Air Forces Europe said.

“We are facing a dynamic environment and this deployment significantly enhances our support to NATO’s defenses,”Gen. Jeff Harrigian, Commander U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and Commander Allied Air Command, said in the written statement.

Video Above: Could F-35s Deter Russia from Invading Ukraine?

This distance between the center of Germany and the center of Ukraine is listed at being roughly 940 miles, so it may be entirely crucial that the Pentagon has sent six tankers to support the F-35 force. Taking off from Germany, F-35s would need to travel over portions of the Czech Republic, Poland or Slovakia to reach Western Ukraine. They will need to fly close to Belarus, a country which is allied with Russia and now hosts Russian forces for training. Depending upon where they take off from, F-35s will likely not have the combat radius to reach Ukraine, especially Eastern Ukraine, in a single sortie. They would need to refuel or stop and refuel on allied territory in Poland or Hungary. This might greatly enable more “dwell time” and mission effectiveness over Ukraine should F-35s be called upon to support Eastern Europe or even Ukraine.

While the Pentagon and NATO have been clear that there are no plans and no intent to attack or challenge Russian forces within Ukraine, the mere presence of F-35s within striking distance arguably changes power dynamic and strategic calculus in a significant way. It could lead Russia to think twice about any invasion of Ukraine for a number of key reasons.

F-35 air dominance might be the greatest advantage NATO and the West might have against a large, advancing Russian land attack. While there are certainly many reasons why a NATO ground force, if properly reinforced with deployments, might succeed against a mechanized Russian attack, the prospect of F-35 air support greatly strengthens this posture. There are no clear available indications that Russian 5th-generation Su-57 stealth fighters could rival, match or even challenge US and allied European F-35s. 

Of equal or greater importance, multiple public reports, including one from The National Interest, say that Russia now operates only 12 Su-57s and has plans to acquire 70 more in coming years. It would not be surprising if the Pentagon made efforts to ensure the F-35 force arriving in Germany and available with European allies was indeed large enough to greatly outmatch the available number of Su-57s, perhaps a reason why actual number of F-35s is not being announced.

F-35 Switzerland

F-35 Aerials during flight test evaluations in Switzerland

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Upon initial observation and thinking about a potential match up, it seems a well-sized, networked force of US and European F-35s would be positioned to destroy Russian air and ground forces. Long range sensors built into the F-35 could strike Russian ground forces from safe stand-off distances and be equally positioned to quickly destroy Russian 4th-generation aircraft. 

It would seem clear that a strong presence of F-35s will make it much less likely that Putin would ever contemplate an attack on NATO or Eastern Europe. By extension, while NATO is clear it will not enter Ukraine in the event of invasion, the mere presence of many F-35s within striking distance might even prevent a potential invasion of Ukraine.

Pentagon sends Strykers to Bulgaria

The Pentagon is sending a company of Stryker vehicles to Bulgaria as part of a clear move to send a message of support to the key NATO ally and further strengthen deterrence efforts against a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine

"These troops will be departing Germany in coming days, and they will help ensure our readiness and interoperability with Bulgaria as our NATO ally," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told an audience in Brussels, Belgium at NATO headquarters. 

Reinforcing Bulgaria seems quite significant for a number of key reasons. As a key NATO ally bordering the Black Sea, Bulgaria is South of Ukraine and not likely to be in any invasion path chosen by Russia. However, Austin did also add in his remarks that, in addition to adding large numbers of Russian ground forces now assembled in Ukraine, Russia is also increasing its military presence in the Black Sea. 

Soldiers of 2nd Cavalry Regiment roll out of the motor pool to begin their tactical road march in Stryker Combat Vehicles from Rose Barracks, Germany to Tapa Military Training Area, Estonia, May 27. On their journey approximately 1,400 Soldiers, in 400 vehicles, will be covering over 2,200 kilometers, through six countries. Dragoon Ride is conducted to validate our partnering allies’ abilities to assemble forces rapidly, deploy them on short notice and improve the ability to shoot, move and communicate as a multinational allegiance. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Caitlyn Byrne, 10th Press Camp Headquarters)

Soldiers of 2nd Cavalry Regiment roll out of the motor pool to begin their tactical road march in Stryker Combat Vehicles from Rose Barracks, Germany to Tapa Military Training Area, Estonia, May 27. On their journey approximately 1,400 Soldiers, in 400 vehicles, will be covering over 2,200 kilometers, through six countries. Dragoon Ride is conducted to validate our partnering allies’ abilities to assemble forces rapidly, deploy them on short notice and improve the ability to shoot, move and communicate as a multinational allegiance. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Caitlyn Byrne, 10th Press Camp Headquarters)

As a NATO ally with coastline along the Black Sea, Bulgaria could in fact be vulnerable to Russian missile or warship attacks from the ocean. Sending armed Strykers, known for their deployability and cross-terrain mobility, sends a clear message to Russia that, just like other NATO allies, Bulgaria will in fact be defended by the full power of NATO’s force. 

In fact, Austin heavily emphasized NATO unity and was clear to indicate the alliance was unified and operating with a collective measure of resolve to uphold Article 5 of its Charter ensuring collective defense in the event of an attack on any member. 

There is yet another significant message potentially associated with the deployment of Strykers to Bulgaria, and it relates to mobility and deployability. It calls to mind an important Army and European exercise in 2015 called the Dragoon Ride. This event included an extensive deployment convoy traveling across the European continent to, among other things, conduct joint operations with NATO’s Eastern European allied forces such as the Czech Republic. 

U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division recently deployed to Poland because of the Russia-Ukraine tensions are setting up camp at a military airport in Mielec, southeastern Poland, Feb. 12, 2022.

U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division recently deployed to Poland because of the Russia-Ukraine tensions are setting up camp at a military airport in Mielec, southeastern Poland, Feb. 12, 2022.

The convoy, which included Strykers, tactical trucks and other armored vehicles, traveled across a vast 1,800km journey spanning from Estonia in Eastern Europe to Germany. The intent of the convoy, US Army officials told Warrior at the time, was to demonstrate an ability to mobilize and deploy US and allied forces quickly and efficiently throughout the European continent. During the Dragoon Ride, soldiers with the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment traveled from the Baltic states through Poland, the Czech Republic into Germany, connecting with allies along the way. 

There is thus a strategically significant thread of continuity connecting these kinds of 2015 deployments with a current interest in fortifying deterrence efforts against Russia. 

US Army Strykers and other NATO mechanized land warfare assets could very effectively deploy from Bulgaria Northward to reinforce Ukraine from its Southern border. Bulgaria borders Romania and might have an ability to access SouthEastern Ukraine through Moldava or reach SouthWestern Ukraine through Romania. Essentially, should there be a need to protect Romania or reinforce Ukraine’s Southern border, Strykers based in Bulgaria could be uniquely impactful.

Russia Launches Massive Cyberattack On Ukraine 

Ukraine is now fighting what it calls the largest cyber attack in the country’s history, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the US Intelligence community “continues to assess what happened there.” 

While Austin was clear not to speculate, he did say a cyber attack of this kind is a “play taken out of his playbook.”

He added that the US would respond intensely to any cyber attack on NATO. 

“In terms of a response to the cyber attack, if someone attacks the United States of America, then certainly, we will -- we will hold that -- that element responsible or accountable, and -- and at this point, nobody -- you know, we -- we haven't seen that. We have -- we have not been attacked. NATO elements have not been attacked. So we'll leave it at that,” he said. 

US Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a press statement prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16, 2022.

US Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a press statement prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16, 2022.

While details regarding ongoing investigations are typically not available for security reasons, the US is of course experienced when it comes to analyzing the possibility of Russian cyberwarfare. 

“Before any attack we'd -- we'd expect to see cyber attacks, false-flag activities and a -- and a -- and a number of others -- increasing rhetoric in the information space, and we're beginning to see more and more of that,” Austin said. 

Given that they are by no means restricted to geographical boundaries, many are likely to be conscious of cyber threats to other strategically vital areas in Europe or even the US. What could they involve? Well certainly the first and most obvious one could be a cyber attack on electrical grids to in effect “blind” Ukrainian or NATO forces. Beyond that, there are many possibilities such as a simple “denial of service” attack to intrude upon and shut down computer networks, perhaps even military computers. 

There could even be cyber attacks, jamming or EW actions against specific networks crucial to satellites and weapons systems, a possibility enhanced by the growing extent to which weapons systems are cyber reliant. This is a key reason why US weapons developers have been consistent and vigorous when it comes to “baking in” cyber protections early in the developmental process of weapons systems. 

Added to this, the US military has made great progress hardening existing weapons systems against interference. For instance, the US Air Force has for several years now been operating a special office called CROWS, Cyber Resilience Office of Weapons Systems. 

The specific purpose of this office is to test, hack and seek to penetrate existing weapons systems in order to identify and correct potential vulnerabilities. The intent here is to build in fixes and protections to better enable weapons to function while under cyber attack. This can pertain to data processing systems analyzing incoming sensor data from drones and satellites to even the integrated computer networks which link fighter jets and armored vehicles on the move. 

There certainly does appear to be precedent for this, as many senior US military weapons developers have said the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 was a “wake up” call for the US given Russia’s use of drones, unmanned systems and electronic warfare attacks. There are growing amounts of cyber components to EW information systems and targeting technologies and real-time warzone data transmission, an evolving phenomenon which has only continued to drive the Pentagon’s ongoing push to accelerate cybersecurity and cyberwar technologies. 

The Air Force, as part of this, has in recent years stood up special “Cyber Squadrons” tasked with training the force on cyber hygiene and researching new cyber security applications. For example, one evolving technique is to use computer automation to replicate the behavior of a human user online to “lure” and therefore identify a potential intruder. Other innovations include Navy efforts to use cutting edge technology to identify the presence of malware buried into encrypted communications.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization