On March 31, U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Spalding III argued in The National Interest that a “purely defensive deployment” of Air Force F-22 stealth fighters “is just one possible solution” to the Ukraine crisis, which has seen Vladimir Putin’s Russia annex the strategic Crimean peninsula and threaten the rest of Ukraine.
Spalding is wrong—F-22s are not the answer. The colonel’s assertion is yet another example of air power hubris, which has come to define the Air Force. “Without firing a shot, such a deployment [of F-22s] would immediately change Putin’s invasion calculus,” Spalding insists.
Russian aircraft wouldn’t survive a confrontation with American stealth fighters and thus couldn’t support a Russian ground invasion, in Spalding reasoning. Ukrainians would feel more confident about their ability to defend their country, since any Russian invasion would be subject to attack by Ukrainian aircraft protected by F-22s.
This essay does not evaluate the wisdom of Washington extending a security guarantee to Ukraine, an issue that remains fundamentally political in nature. Rather, it challenges the argument that the fielding of F-22s could decisively tip the military balance in favor of the Ukrainian military.
First, F-22s could only destroy the Russian air force if the latter engaged, which of course it would not. The Russians know that the F-22 can defeat any fighter flown by their air force. The Kremlin would respond to a “purely defensive” deployment of F-22s by only operating their own aircraft in conditions of overwhelming superiority.
At best, the F-22s could deter Russia from using its air force to support advancing Russian army spearheads.
But what about using Ukrainian aircraft to attack Russian army formations? Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, pictured above, can identify, track and fire on targets at ranges of up to 250 miles.
Even if we assume that the F-22 can evade multiple, overlapping S-400 batteries—a deadly proposition we have never tested—Ukraine’s Su-25 attack aircraft cannot.
Moscow can deploy the S-400 such that it provides cover over advancing Russian troops everywhere in eastern or central Ukraine. The Russian army possesses additional, mobile SAM systems that can render any Ukrainian air attacks suicidal.
This means that even a “defensive” positioning of F-22s in Ukraine would leave Ukrainian ground forces at the mercy of the larger, better trained and more technologically advanced Russian army.
But wait! It gets worse.
The 97K20 Iskandar theater ballistic can hit targets 250 miles away with an accuracy of five meters. Not only does this give advancing Russian forces a strike option not solvable by F-22s, it also means that Russia can attack, with considerable precision, Ukraine’s air bases.
Not incidentally, this means that the USAF would also have to find secure bases for its F-22s.
Patriot anti-missile batteries would help, but the Air Force won’t leave its half-a-billion-dollar-apiece stealth fighters at the mercy of Russian ballistic and cruise missiles for long. Indeed, the Kremlin might find the prospect of destroying several billion dollars of USAF equipment attractive—even if the the United States based the planes in Poland.
Russia would also use its long-range artillery to hammer Ukrainian defensive positions in depth, all without the need for air strikes. Russia retains a massive advantage over Ukraine in the number and sophistication of these systems.
Finally, Moscow can use air power creatively to give itself an even greater advantage on the battlefield. Assuming that the USAF’s “defensive deployment” won’t result in rules of engagement that allow F-22s to shoot down Russian aircraft in Russian airspace—a truly apocalyptic prospect—the Kremlin’s fighter-bombers can conduct quick dashes across the border, deliver ordnance and then return to the safety of the Motherland.
Moreover, Russia possesses a bevy of air-launched conventional cruise missiles that can hit targets across Ukraine without ever requiring Russian aircraft to cross the border.
It gets even worse.
If U.S. F-22s can only operate from bases in the far west of Ukraine … or from Poland … or even from Georgia, they will have to travel nearly 600 miles in order to patrol the sections of eastern Ukraine of interest to Russia.
With external drop tanks the F-22 can operate at such a range, but not for very long. This gives Russian fighters ample opportunity to operate in support of Russian ground troops in the absence of F-22s. Russia’s SAM systems would make the use of refueling tankers—not to mention E-3 command and control aircraft—over Ukraine a tricky proposition.
A political commitment on the part of the United States to the territorial integrity of Ukraine might deter a Russian invasion. If Russia decides to attack anyway, the United States will need to contribute quite a bit more than a few squadrons of F-22s.
This proposal would seem merely silly if it came from a civilian policymaker without the faintest notion of the finer points of air power. Instead, it comes from an Air Force colonel. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Air Force officers are pushing palpably absurd solutions to the Ukraine crisis.
People complain that my book Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force focuses too much on having “dead arguments with dead men,” and that modern air power advocates have given up on making extravagant, unsupportable claims about the effectiveness of aviation.
But whether the USAF’s system of professional military education produces senior officers with shallow knowledge of air power theory and operations, or whether it simply creates incentives for senior officers to radically overstate the utility of air power, the problem remains essentially the same.
The Air Force has an institutional pre-disposition to overstating the potential impact of air power, a pre-disposition that goes hand-in-hand with a proclivity for advocating diplomatically reckless foreign policy.
If the United States wants to deter Russia, it needs to make a clear political commitment to Ukrainian territorial integrity. If it wants to fight Russia, it needs to prepare for a real war, not a fanciful delusion of a cheap, easy, painless conflict.