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Aerial Combat and American Ideology: Why Ukraine is a Test of Our Tactical Preparedness

Ukraine’s jet pilot off for a training flight. (Air Force Command of UA Armed Forces/ Facebook.)

The ongoing Russo-Ukraine War is as much about Eastern European identity as it is a test of the United States’ tactical preparedness for warfare in the modern era. Outside of Middle East intervention, America’s military capacity has been largely unproven in regard to global superpowers. While American boots haven’t been put on the ground, the skies are filled with Uncle Sam’s martial prowess. Intense collaboration and training has granted Ukraine an unlikely aerial advantage and the United States a major doctrinal boost over a potential foe in Russia.

Ukraine’s Air Force and Naval Aviation fleet have made a compelling case for the United States’ supremacy in military ideology. Despite running dated Soviet-era fighter jets like the Mikoyan 29 (Mig 29), the war has opened with an impressive amount of aerial resilience from Ukraine’s limited fighting force. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainian 40th Tactical Brigade, until very recently, held almost complete control of the sky in Kyiv. Harvard’s Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs, Stephen P. Rosen, has attributed this to the extensive training and support that America has afforded the Ukrainian military since 2014. While training initiatives between Ukraine and the United States have been in effect for nearly three decades, the annexation of Crimea marked a new era of Russian expansion and need for an updated military doctrine. The U.S. Air Force has since conducted massive military exercises on Ukraine soil in partnership with other NATO member-states. Clear Sky 2018 was a multinational military exercise, boasting an impressive roster of countries and was hailed the “gold standard” for readiness and interoperability between the two major participating nations, Ukraine and the United States. The convention was pivotal, in part because its program focused on a single aggressor: Russia. Air sovereignty training allowed Ukrainian forces to adapt their strategies to Russia’s specific aerial stratagem. Combat simulations are difficult to run, but the United States’s participation allowed for both practical and realistic application of hostile scenarios.

While the United States has not declared any official involvement in this conflict, they have likely played an integral role in Ukraine’s unlikely success. Since February 24th, the United States has pumped nearly $3.9 Billion dollars in armaments to the Ukrainian military, including the surface-to-air missiles (ManPads) that have been extremely efficient in deterring Russian bombardment. Critics point out that Ukrainian troops have been instrumental in their own success, highlighting their experience with Russian aggression in the past. Ukraine, as a country, has experienced conflict much more intimately than America. Adrian Bonenberger, a writer and former U.S. Army Infantry Officer shares a similar sentiment: “2014-15 had been crucial to Ukraine’s understanding of itself as a nation and for the military’s understanding of its capabilities and deficiencies.” While Bonenberger’s analysis is more specific to Ukraine’s Army and militia counterparts, it can be said that Ukraine has enjoyed the transition to decentralized battlefield decision-making. Training like Clear Sky 2018 and its sequels, have proven that the Western design of combat is still an effective means of strategy.

In recent months, Ukraine’s Air Force can be viewed as an extension and example of NATO’s superior preparation. Because of this proven resilience, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked, in varying tones and capacities, for the supplement of its fighter jet fleet. Calls for American F-15s and F-16s have slowed in recent weeks but the question still bears merit; should the United States employ some of its most technologically impressive aircrafts? In short, it is neither economically or militarily advantageous. In previous agreements, the United States has sent F-15s to various regions of the world, with the most action taking place on the fleets given to the Saudi Arabian Air Force. That said, the greatest threat to the Middle East’s largest military actor has been the Houthis of Yemen. In American hands, these jets have avoided combat since Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Their ‘untestedness’ against comparable aviators remains a big concern and gamble when putting them into the hands of untrained, under-managed pilots and crew members.

A serviceman launches an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft at the position of the Ukrainian forces near eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk,(Petro Zadorozhnyy/AFP via Getty Images)

Issues arise beyond just the training of pilots, which in and of itself could take 7 months and cost about $5.6 million USD per pilot. Despite modern capabilities, the complex maintenance and support processes needed should also be acknowledged. As noted by the The 54th Aircraft Maintenance Airmen of New Mexico, the “health” of the F-16 is entirely dependent upon its slew of maintainers. When the United States sent a package of F-16s to Turkey in 2015 to meet NATO interests, nearly 30 Air Force personnel per aircraft were also deployed. Fighter jets are never designed with maintenance in mind and the technological capacity of such aircrafts require a level of specialization that the Ukrainian Air Force lacks. That said, there is still concern regarding Moscow’s interest in obtaining such high-tech systems. Ukraine’s military, particularly during the annexation of Crimea, was dominated by Russian sympathizers and there is reasonable hesitation from NATO to donate, or even sell, such technology. While an aerial duel between Russian SU-35s and NATO’s F-16s would balance the skies, USAF officials rightly assume that “this is not the recipe for success.” Aerial victory would mean the establishment of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine, meaning fighters would need to engage combatants inside Russian airspace, and, given their arsenal of missiles and armaments like the S-400 Triumf, this is not feasible. Doing so would require more than a dozen U.S. fighter jets, something no NATO country is willing to provide.

Press service of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/AFP

Ukraine is an ample opportunity for observation of American tactics and ideology, as the Ukrainian military consciously adopted Western doctrine in prioritizing adaptability and bottom-up decision making. By alleviating themselves from blind-loyalty that has stalled Russia’s expansion efforts, they have proven to be a competent and effective fighting force. Despite these facts, mobilization of NATO or the United States’ fighter jets would be an expensive and costly endeavor, from both a technical and personnel perspective. Their increased presence in an international conflict could be fueling a fire that is already hard to put out. Even under the assumption of Ukraine’s competence in the cockpit, the sheer size of the Russian Air Force gives little credit to the F-15s and -16s if there is no additional support. Russian sentiment, at least according to President Vladimir Putin, has put nuclear weapons on the table if escalation continues from the West. The United States can not leave its allies stranded, a more practical solution would be the disbursement of the nearly $775 million USD of aid already granted to the fight. Javelin and Howitzer systems don’t hold the same connotation as multi-million dollar aircrafts, but in consideration have been equally as effective. The United States and its allies continue to be stuck in a political gray area, but with Chinese-Taiwanese aggression looming, an ideological battle in Eastern Europe is all that can be afforded. While it is yet to be determined if the Ukrainian fight will end in peaceful diplomacy or through force of arms, the United States’ priorities should remain foresighted and centered around reducing the leverage of China and Russia in impending international conflicts.


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