American and NATO air forces are bolstering their stance in Eastern Europe after Russia launched its opening gambit in a far-reaching invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.
The scope and speed of Russia’s military reach into the country has prompted Western officials to quickly decide on next steps, after weeks of vowing not to send reinforcements into Ukraine itself.
Six U.S. F-35A Lightning II fighter jets deployed from Germany to multiple countries on NATO’s eastern flank on Thursday for air policing flights in solidarity with the transatlantic alliance. They’ll disperse alongside F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle fighter jets across Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania, U.S. Air Forces in Europe said.
The presence of the Air Force’s most advanced fighter jet signals a swift response if Russia expands its offensive outside Ukraine’s borders and into NATO countries. The F-35A can act as a quarterback to pass targeting information and other data between other U.S. and NATO fighters in the region, should the alliance need to react quickly to Russian aggression.
The six F-35As come after the Defense Department promised on Tuesday to send up to eight Lightning IIs that had arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
“Why are they in the Baltics? It’s assurance, deterrence and, quite frankly, I think they’ll do training as well, depending on how the situation evolves,” a senior F-35 official said Wednesday. Air Force Times is withholding their name because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
That training involves working out the kinks in sharing targeting data and other sensor information between the F-35A and European jets, they said. The official expects multiple types of fighters running tactics drills together to ensure everyone is up to speed.
“Europe’s going to have 500 F-35s. Only 50 of those are going to be U.S. airplanes at [RAF Lakenheath, England], give or take,” they said. “It has to be seamless with our partners.”
The F-35As are likely collecting information about activity in the surrounding area through their sensors as well, while avoiding being tracked themselves, the official added.
“They want to make sure that they’re communicating across the data links and sharing the right information. ‘Is this working? Are there any anomalies?’” the F-35 official said of training. “The other 50% of it is honing the tactics.”
The official doubts U.S. fighters would enter Ukrainian airspace or fire weapons.
They official estimated that about 200 people likely stayed at Spangdahlem while another 100 airmen moved farther east in a “hub-and-spoke” deployment intended to be more flexible in an emergency. That model keeps the bulk of military forces at an established installation like a brick-and-mortar base or an aircraft carrier, but sends a smaller group out to set up camp closer to the intended mission.
Among those headed to the potential front lines may be Hill’s specialized cadre of versatile maintainers who know all about fixing the jets, known as the Lightning Technician Program.
“I would expect them to retrograde back to [Germany] at some point because I don’t think they’re taking a lot of their spare parts and stuff with them,” the official said. “It’s a short duration, but they can tailor that however they want.”
The scenario and conditions are likely close to what the airmen have trained to face while at home, the source said.
“When you take a [fifth-generation] fighter, you’re certainly going to go to a prepared airfield,” they said, noting the troops may be living in tents at the Baltic bases. “The minimum requirements were water, shelter and fuel. Hopefully there’s weapons there if you had to reload.”
Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, an Air Force intelligence officer and military strategist currently serving as an Atlantic Council fellow, said in an online briefing late Wednesday the force the United States and NATO has amassed in Eastern Europe is enough to give Russian President Vladimir Putin pause before expanding a military campaign beyond Ukraine.
Russian jets early Thursday took out military facilities and surface-to-air missile launchers that protect Ukraine from overhead attack, allowing them to patrol the skies so their ground and naval forces can move around the country more freely.
The opening moves of the Russian air campaign likely aimed to sever military units’ ties to their commanders — “cut the head off of the snake, if you will,” Wetzel said. Interrupting Ukrainian troops’ access to command, their leaders’ control, and communications more broadly can hurt their ability to slow Russia’s advance.
Experts said ahead of the invasion the air defense systems were perhaps the most vulnerable aspect of Ukraine’s military protection.
“The United States set the tone for this type of attack in 1991 in the opening hours of [Operation] Desert Storm,” Wetzel said. “It is a methodology that still works today.”
Russia could control Ukraine’s skies within 48 to 72 hours as a precursor to “softening up resistance to allow for the ground invasion,” Wetzel projected.
“The Ukrainian Air Force, which is small and has some older aircraft, but is still a very capable, professional force, I’m sure they will rise to meet some of the Russian aircraft,” he added, predicting air-to-air combat between the two nations will ensue.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO declined to comment directly on reports of possible aerial dogfighting between Ukrainian and Russian jets.
If Putin successfully annexes the entire country, NATO countries would comprise nearly all of Russia’s western border — boosting the risk of cross-border confrontation that could draw the alliance’s 30 countries into a fight.
Since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the military has sought to bolster infrastructure in Europe that would allow it to deter or quickly respond to Russian aggression. The Air Force, in particular, has funded construction at NATO bases so it can more easily deploy aircraft to Eastern Europe.
But despite years of renewed focus there, progress remains piecemeal.
The American F-35As arriving at Amari Air Base in Estonia will find a new tactical fighter aircraft parking apron and taxiway, built to allow the base to support the F-35, as well as the Air Force’s other fighter aircraft and the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack plane.
Those projects and others across the continent were paid for by the European Deterrence Initiative, a pot of Pentagon funding set aside for NATO-related infrastructure improvements.
Upgrades to Amari’s parking apron, hazardous cargo pad, dorm building and squadron operations facility are all complete, USAFE said in an email Thursday, and improvements to its refueling infrastructure are slated to wrap up within the next year.
Other construction projects are further behind.
At Kecskemet Air Base in Hungary, jobs to improve fuel storage, taxiway construction and other infrastructure to accommodate F-15s, A-10s and C-5s “were paused for several months due to a hold on funding,” USAFE said. The Air Force hopes to gather industry bids on the work this summer.
A parking apron expansion at Malacky Air Base in Slovakia, meant to accommodate A-10s and F-15s, is moving forward after the country signed a military treaty with the U.S. this month. Designs were on hold for a year, but are now being “refreshed,” USAFE said, with a construction contract award to come.
Another project to build a new taxiway at Rygge Air Station in Norway is on hold, USAFE said. The service hopes it can revive the project in a later year.
Other possible plans for new builds are too early in the process to tell whether the Air Force will move forward with finding contractors.
To reduce its reliance on brick-and-mortar installations, the Air Force in 2016 began pursuing “base-in-a-box” kits — formally known as “Deployable Air Base System-Facilities, Equipment and Vehicles” (DABS) kits. Ideally, the kits would include the essentials for airmen in Europe to respond to Russia on short notice.
But in 2019, an inspector general report said management problems hampered the DABS program and put it considerably behind schedule. The initial plan was to construct the first storage facility by 2019, but the IG found it wouldn’t be ready until 2022.
The project has stalled further since then. USAFE said the first DABS project was designed to be placed in Sanem, Luxembourg, a central storage and logistics station, but the work was deferred due to lack of funds.
The money has since been restored, USAFE said, and the Air Force aims to award a contract for the project in the next year.
Other DABS kits are planned for Campia Turzii, Romania, which hosts American MQ-9 Reaper drones, and other bases that await revised kit designs and construction bids.
“Assuring our allies that we’re there with them is No. 1,” the senior F-35 official said. “Hopefully, that assurance will also lead to deterrence, or at least the Russians may think twice.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.