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Winning the battle for the skies of Ukraine

Winning the battle for the skies of Ukraine is just as important as winning the fight on the ground. Despite recent moves by the United States and NATO allies such as Germany to end their previous objections to supplying Ukraine with heavy armor, their reticence to do the same for aircraft remains.

The clock is ticking. Ukraine needs fighter jets — soon.

Western worries about transferring fighter aircraft like the F-16 to Ukraine appear to be based more on political concerns than military strategy. Few flag officers would suggest the incremental approach Western political leaders are undertaking as a strategy to win the Ukraine war. The American way of war prefers overwhelming force — and for good reason: It produces victory. The alternative is often a brutal war of attrition.

Aerial imagines from modern battlefields in Ukraine resemble the topographic scars and trenches of World War I’s Western Front, a battlefield buried in death. Western promises of main battle tanks to Ukraine may eliminate the trench warfare quagmire, perhaps resembling World War II, a war that caused 8 million deaths in the West alone.  That war also exposed the advantage of air.

In 1991, a rapid securing of air superiority over Iraq demonstrated the lethality of precision munitions along with combined arms. As ground forces advanced, Iraqis couldn’t retreat fast enough. 

In 1999, NATO’s airpower forced Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to surrender after 78 days of bombing during Operation Allied Force. NATO ran the modern playbook — suppressing air defenses, rapidly securing air superiority and maintaining that advantage while pounding Serbian positions.

These efforts paid off. After flying nearly 30,000 sorties and dodging some 1,000 anti-air missiles, the coalition lost only two aircraft. More importantly, according to Serbian officials, total deaths numbered fewer than 3,500, a staggeringly small number compared to World War I and II.

Currently in Ukraine, pilots on both sides routinely fly at low altitude to avoid anti-aircraft weapons. But precision-guided munitions such as the JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) or laser-guided bombs, the kind that devastated Iraq and Serbia, were designed for mid-altitude or higher delivery. Attempting to employ these weapons from low-level is wasteful. 

The simple point is that Ukraine must gain and maintain air superiority to operate in the medium/high altitude regime. Once achieved, the war will rapidly shift to Ukraine’s favor. This should be a major priority for Western leaders who wish to avoid an endless war in Europe. Here’s how it might be accomplished.

Ukraine will need a reasonable number of air/air and air/ground capable fighter aircraft (arguably the F-16) and a continued supply of AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs). Rolling back Russian air defenses is the first puzzle piece. Once achieved, the game changes. Ukrainian pilots will then be able to deliver medium altitude precision weapons at will onto Russian ground forces and strategic targets.

But precision strike is only one benefit. Air superiority increases friendly force freedom of movement while constricting it to the enemy. Ukrainian ground force commanders can maximize the effects of heavy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Air superiority opens the battlespace for the side that owns it, while shrinking it for the other.  Continuing under the current level of air parity, land warfare is more challenging, constricted and costly — both monetarily and in human lives. 

None of this is new. It’s part of the military lessons the U.S. has learned over decades of conventional force-on-force wars (not counter insurgencies like modern Iraq or Afghanistan). Concerningly, the war in Ukraine seems to resemble another counter insurgency, at least from a political perspective: Vietnam. The White House’s gradual force increases and attempted micro-management was a well-documented political and military mistake in Vietnam. American politicians gradually stumbled further and further, ignoring military advice. 

The Vietnam War remains a top study in military history books because it reinforces the consequences of civilian leaders prioritizing political perspectives over military objectives.

While Western leaders are not active belligerents in the Ukraine war, they are clearly doling out their “toys” in a micro-management fashion, using a piecemeal support approach to Kyiv. The decision not to send fighters is political; there is no military rationale.

Providing fighter jets to Ukraine would enable a swifter and more decisive victory for this embattled country, minimizing the cost and casualties of a long war. It also requires bold leaders to make tough decisions.

Increasingly, it appears that some Pentagon officials are advocating for this approach. Given the reticence of leaders in Washington to rethink their policy on aircraft, it is hard to see how carefully they are listening to military advice. Some members of Congress are advocating sending F-16s to Ukraine. Those voices must be amplified, and the case for overwhelming force from a combined air and land campaign needs to be communicated to our hesitant coalition partners. 

If the U.S. and its allies wish to conclude this war with a limited loss of life, they should know the solution lies in the airspace of Ukraine. Western leaders will eventually come to this conclusion. Let’s hope this decision is a quick, bold and decisive one.

Colonel (Retired) Jeffrey H. Fischer, U.S. Air Force, is a 30-year military aviator with seven combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. He served as a defense official at U.S. Embassies in Austria and Kosovo. He is the author of “Live Range” and “Balkan Reprisal.” Follow him on Twitter @JeffFisch. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Tags Defense Department fighter jets Kyiv military aid to Ukraine NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine United States Vietnam War

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