Time is not on Ukraine’s side. The West’s current strategy guarantees a long, drawn-out stalemate. But airpower could change the balance of the Russia/Ukraine war and the U.S. and NATO have the means to help Ukraine change the course of the conflict.
After initial success defending against invading Russian forces around Kiev earlier this year, Ukraine is now caught up in an unrelenting ground war of attrition. Left in this force-on-force competition, Ukraine will struggle to hold the line, let alone reverse battlefield losses. Innocent civilians will continue to die under criminal and intentionally brutal Russian attacks.
The stakes go well beyond Europe. Precedents set in this war will reverberate, especially when it comes to China and its illegal actions in the Pacific. It is time to pursue a new approach, one that capitalizes on airpower to achieve a combat advantage over the Russians significant enough to turn the tide of the war.
While the resolve behind U.S.-led global economic sanctions is admirable, those measures have not and will not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The same can be said of the West’s generous military assistance to Ukraine, which has provided enough material to assist the Ukrainians in maintaining the status quo. Without more consequential military assistance for Ukraine, however, the military advantage will accrue to Putin.
Western combat airpower could fundamentally alter the calculus in this fight. By providing Ukraine with capable Western aircraft, both manned and unmanned, the West can increase Ukraine’s probability of success in reversing Russia’s aggression.
The Russian military is optimized to slug it out on the ground. By fighting from the air, Ukraine can turn that advantage around. Empowering Ukraine to target Russian logistics lines, supply depots, artillery and missile batteries, command and control centers, and fielded forces would render the Russians far more vulnerable than they are today or will be tomorrow without such assistance.
Ukraine flies Soviet-era jets that are wearing down under heavy use and attendant losses. Those reduced numbers have only increased reliance on the remaining aircraft, increasing demand for parts and further reducing availability. Only by replacing those fighter aircraft with Western alternatives can Ukraine hope to defend its airspace and achieve an advantage over the Russians.
The U.S. has a ready solution. With the congressionally approved retirement of 48 F-15C/D Eagles, and 47 F-16C/D Falcons from the Air Force in fiscal 2022, along with 21 A-10 Thunderbolts in fiscal 2023, the U.S. has a ready inventory of excess aircraft that can rapidly tilt the balance of power in the Russia/Ukraine war—if the U.S. acts quickly. The U.S. also has MQ-1 Gray Eagles and MQ-9 Reapers—remotely piloted aircraft that in sufficient numbers and properly employed as part of an integrated air campaign can provide significant military capability that can be used to counter Russian aggression.
These aircraft, along with appropriate training, could become the nucleus of a westernized Ukrainian Air Force. Achieving that objective as soon as possible is a right and worthy goal.
The obstacles to this path are primarily political. Instead of powerfully responding with significant consequences to the horrors that Putin and his military are inflicting on innocents, the President and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have incrementally increased the kinds of military gear being provided, cautiously tempering any action they fear might trigger a disproportionate response from Putin.
Some cite material security concerns if some of the aircraft were provided to Ukraine get shot down and end up in Russian hands. Yet these aircraft have been employed for decades and have long been exposed to U.S. adversaries. Particularly sensitive equipment can be controlled appropriately. Concerns that training would take too long are similarly specious. Had the U.S. begun such training when the war broke out, Ukraine already could be using these systems today.
Ukrainian pilots with ample fighter experience could quickly adapt to F-15s and F-16s if so enabled and would most likely wield a notable proficiency edge over their Russian opponents. The California Air National Guard (ANG) has had an ongoing F-15C/D fighter exchange relationship with the Ukrainian Air Force since 1993. Over that time the California ANG has inculcated U.S.-style air combat thinking and concepts of operation with their Ukrainian counterparts. Thanks to that sharing, the small but able Ukrainian fighter aircraft community has acquired the beginnings of Western operational style and habit patterns that remain entirely alien, even today, to the post-Soviet Russian Air Force.
As for those apprehensions about conflict escalation given Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, the West must beware: Giving in to the threat of a tyrant is the most dangerous action possible. The risk of escalation is ever present regardless of what actions the West takes to support Ukraine. Putin has already shown he will manufacture a pretext should his adversaries fail to give him one.
During the Vietnam war, the Russians supplied North Vietnam with 100 percent of their combat aircraft, all their surface-to-air missile systems, and many of their tanks. Indeed, the Russians were on the ground assisting North Vietnam’s army. Both Russia and the U.S. had nuclear weapons at the time, yet that conflict did not evolve into the use of nuclear weapons. With this precedent already set, why should the fact that Russia and the U.S. have the same weapons in their inventories today result in their use?
The lessons of this conflict may be even greater for China, which is sitting on the sidelines taking note of everything. As Britain’s MI5 chief Ken McCallum recently noted, “I’m confident in saying that China is drawing all sorts of lessons from what’s happening with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine…” China’s ongoing aggression in the Pacific over disputed territories and resources shows no signs of easing, and the precedents currently being established in Ukraine give China little reason to throttle back. Without checking Putin, China will be emboldened. Halting a motivated, aggressive China will prove far more difficult. The U.S. must set a strong example now to deter Chinese aggression in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan in the future.
The lessons are no less significant to the likes of Iran or North Korea. The message sent by any wavering under Putin’s nuclear threats, most likely will be interpreted by these potential adversaries that it is to their advantage to acquire nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.
This is why time is of the essence. Comments by U.S. leadership like, “we are in it for the long haul,” while intended to be well-meaning, are not strategically useful if they imply the continuation of weapons support to simply maintain the status quo in the battlespace. With economies stressed around the world and elections due for many key countries, including the United States, the West will face mounting political pressure to relax the economic sanctions on Russia. Commodities like home heating fuel oil in winter matter. Continuing a gradualist approach to confronting Putin only increases the odds that he will be able to outlast the coalition facing him. Putin is reasoning that riding out several months—even years—of sanctions is a small price to pay in exchange for his strategic objectives. Given China’s Pacific ambitions, it may have much the same calculus.
Five months into this conflict, the West must face up to these fundamental issues. Russia is the invader, innocent civilians are dying, and the precedents set in this fight are enormously consequential for the world at large. The real risk is not in doing too much to support Ukraine, but in doing too little. Western airpower is a largely untapped, game-changing capability in this conflict. The U.S. has the capacity to provide it. It is time to empower Ukraine to collapse the Russian occupation and push Russian forces back into Russia, rather than simply struggling to hold them in position. Providing the appropriate western airpower to do that now is a critical imperative for Ukraine. It is no less crucial for the U.S. and NATO to realize their own security objectives.
Follow me on Twitter.