The United States is making a strong push to leverage F-35 stealth fighters to increase deterrence against Russia in Europe.
President Biden announced the creation of a new permanent U.S. Army headquarters in Poland, an increase in U.S. Navy destroyers for Rota, Spain, and a move to send two additional squadrons of U.S. F-35s to the Royal Air Force’s Lakenheath base 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 increase in the number of F-35s throughout Europe is a significant contribution when it comes to enhancing deterrence against Russia. The United States already has F-35s in Germany while Poland is set to receive the stealth fighters as well. Germany, Finland, and Switzerland are also set to become F-35 customers. These countries will join the list of European countries, which includes Denmark, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, participating in the F-35 program. A growing number of networked F-35s operating throughout Europe will help fortify the eastern flank. F-35s in Poland and Germany, for instance, are likely able to reach Russian airspace; F-35s based in the United Kingdom could reach Russian airspace with some refueling. A squadron typically includes anywhere from twelve to twenty-four aircraft so the addition of two squadrons represents a substantial increase.
F-35s could form an interconnected multi-national force of fifth-generation fighters, in part because of the Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL). MADL enables secure data and intelligence exchange between all F-35s and it would enable fighters from different countries to form large formations and disperse across a wide operational envelope. The F-35’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities massively extend the surveillance range of fighter formations. F-35s would also be able to share information with surface and ground units as well. A large, multinational force of F-35s could help drive a multidomain joint attack formation, which would be critical in a potential conflict with Russia.
Another important factor related to F-35 deployments in Europe is air superiority. For example, Russia’s state-run TASS news service reported that there are currently only a few fifth-generation Su-57 aircraft operational though there are plans to acquire about seventy more. Assuming the Su-57 can rival the F-35, and there are no clear indications that it could, Russia would still not have enough of them to achieve air superiority. NATO and the United States, in terms of fleet size, would be operating large numbers of fifth-generation aircraft against a largely fourth-generation Russian air force. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, already has more than 300 F-35As while warships could launch F-35B and F-35C fighters from the Baltic Sea.
Kris Osborn serves as Defense Editor for The National Interest. He 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 been an anchor and on-air military analyst for national TV networks.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force.