As the United States 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 Joint Strike Fighter?
Should any kind of U.S. and allied F-35 fighter 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 fighters near or even in Ukraine, and run drills, exercises, and combat preparation operations? While NATO and the United States 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 U.S. 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 United States 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 starting up their own forces of F-35s. Italy and The Netherlands are also F-35 partners.
Added to this possibility is the fact that European countries are in close proximity to one another, making it quite possible for F-35 fighters to reach Ukraine from Poland or other Eastern European countries within their existing combat radius.
Regardless of whether F-35 stealth fighters 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-57 fighter jets 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.
If used strategically 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 U.S. 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 President Vladimir Putin’s mind and actually prevent an invasion.
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.
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