Pentagon Sends U.S. F-35 Stealth Fighters to Bolster NATO Defense

February 23, 2022 Topic: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35Russian MilitaryRussiaUkraine CrisisNATO

Pentagon Sends U.S. F-35 Stealth Fighters to Bolster NATO Defense

The exact location of the F-35s is not known, likely for security reasons, yet moving F-35s farther east has enormous strategic implications.

U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are heading to bolster NATO’s “Eastern Flank” after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the movement of up to eight of the fifth-generation stealth jets eastward from Germany.

A Pentagon report says Austin has also approved sending 800 infantry soldiers from Italy and as many as twenty Apache helicopters to the Baltics.  As part of these overall force maneuvers, the Pentagon is sending twelve Apache helicopters from Greece to Poland. All of this comes on top of recent maneuvers which have included sending thousands of troops to Poland, Stryker companies to Hungary and Bulgaria, and putting 8,500 U.S. NATO supporting rapid reaction forces on alert.

The exact location of the F-35s is not known, likely for security reasons, yet moving F-35s farther east has enormous strategic implications. The aircraft can function as a deterrent against any Russian movement farther westward from Ukraine, yet placing F-35s in Eastern Europe will likely put their combat radius within striking distance of targets in Ukraine or Russia within a single flight. 

F-35s launched from Eastern Europe could also loiter over targets in the area without requiring aerial refueling. This places the United States’ most advanced, fifth-generation stealth technology in close proximity to Russian troops and well within range to attack Russian ground assets or destroy air defenses over Russian territory. This also puts U.S. F-35s in a position to intercept, track, or even destroy Russian aircraft and fighter jets should they move into NATO areas or threaten U.S. allies. 

Placing F-35s along highly threatened or otherwise vulnerable border areas adds invaluable protection. Given that Russia is known to operate a massive ground force consisting of as many as 12,000 tanks and up to one million soldiers, numerical superiority favors Russia should it aggressively move eastward.  However, multiple F-35s change this military equation.  

For instance, should a smaller number of U.S. and allied troops in Poland or the Baltics be potentially vulnerable to being overrun by a larger Russian ground force, a collection of F-35s could help establish air superiority and push back the Russian incursion. The F-35’s air-dropped bombs, precision-guided air-to-ground missiles, or even 25mm cannon could destroy Russian armored vehicles that are potentially ill-equipped to target fast-moving F-35s from the ground.

As for achieving air supremacy with F-35s over parts of Eastern Europe, that is more difficult though plausible. For instance, even if Russia’s fifth-generation stealth Su-57 fighters were comparable to the F-35, something which is by no means guaranteed, there simply are not enough of them to counterbalance a multinational NATO force of F-35s that are equipped with long-range sensing technology to find and attack Russian aircraft at safer standoff distances.  Multiple public reports, including one from The National Interest, reveal that Russia currently operates roughly twelve Su-57s with plans to acquire seventy more in the coming years. 

A combination of Apache attack helicopters and F-35s fighter jets would be extremely lethal, as they would complement one another with specific tactical advantages. Should an F-35 succeed in establishing air superiority, or even pockets of air superiority, then Apache attack helicopters could “hover” above Russian ground forces and destroy armored vehicles with precision-guided Hellfire tank-killing missiles from distances up to eight kilometers.

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.

Image: Flickr.