F-35 deployment to Europe could deter Russia from invading Ukraine
Close air support from the United States and NATO allies could be vital in helping to defend Ukraine if Russia chooses to invade.
Ukraine is already armed with American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles to engage Russian armored vehicles. A mix of high altitude bombers, reconnaissance planes, drones and manned fighters would all be useful in providing air support in Ukraine. While the legendary A-10 Warthog is known as an exceptional Close Air Support (CAS) asset, newer fighters such as the F-35A Lightning II, F-22 Raptor and other NATO aircraft could also contribute to it.
“It’s important to recognize that CAS is a mission but not a plane,” retired Lieutenant-General David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told National Interest in an interview. “To think that this can only be done with an A-10 is anachronistic and dangerous. Our ability to conduct CAS has exploded thanks to our ability to produce precisely guided effects. ”
The F-35 is capable of providing CAS to the ground using its speed, precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, and low-altitude maneuverability. An F-35 could also maneuver close enough to the ground to fire its 25mm cannon at Russian tanks, armored vehicles, or moving forces.
Fixed-wing aircraft have already been used in CAS missions. The F-22 has been used in combat missions in Syria. The F-35 was also originally developed to fulfill a CAS role. As Deptula said, planes like these are armed with precision guided weapons and long-range sensors to destroy enemy forces from a distance.
“From a close air support perspective, in large part, when I look at our strength, we continue to find opportunities to go and train, largely with our partners across Europe,” General Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe, United States Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center, said The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Honestly, I feel very comfortable that when we talk about how we would operate with their joint terminal air traffic controllers, their ground entities, from the Baltic States to the Mediterranean and even Romania, we have had continuous interaction with them which has enabled us to maintain our close air support capabilities at the right level and to continue to improve our preparedness. ”
Russian air defense capabilities would also be important in this equation. If the United States and NATO establish air superiority with fifth-generation aircraft, the Russians may seek to deploy ground-firing mobile anti-aircraft weapons. Russian short-range air defense weapons, roughly comparable to the US short-range air defense system, can be effective against drones and helicopters, but could fight faster planes flying at higher altitudes. A sufficient presence of fifth-generation aircraft from the United States, NATO or other European countries could even deter Russian decision-makers from a possible ground attack.
Kris Osborn is the editor of Defense for the National Interest. Osborn previously served in the Pentagon as a highly trained expert in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army – Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Osborn also worked as an on-air presenter and military specialist on national television networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.