The air forces of the US and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will now be practicing aerial combat and refining their tactics during nearly all their ‘air policing’ missions, spurred by the Russia-Ukraine war, where there has been “limited yet defining” use of air power.
Pilots will now consistently undertake practicing offensive and defensive maneuvers along NATO’s eastern borders and keep honing their combat skills and technical proficiency under various tactical scenarios, according to General James Hecker, the US Air Force’s top office in Europe.
The war has been characterized by Ukraine employing an ‘air denial’ strategy where it uses a variety of Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) to restrict Russia from flying over Ukrainian skies unchallenged. Kyiv has a meager air force, now reduced to a few dozen aircraft, primarily lost in beyond-visual-range combat.
Russia has chosen not to overtly rely on its air force and undertake a lightning-fast blitzkrieg campaign and instead focused primarily on ground warfare given the territorial goals of the war. It has adopted a slow, incremental campaign and long-range missilery to strike at civilian-military and defense-industrial targets.
Top USAF Officer In Europe Wants All Flights To Be Combat Training
According to a report in Defense News, Hecker said the conflict has forced the Pentagon to focus on tactics instead of “strategic-level chess moves that have defined the US-Russia military relationship in Europe since the end of the Cold War.”
Rather than “passively circling over Europe for the sake of visibility,” during air policing missions, US and NATO pilots practice offensive and defensive maneuvers along NATO’s eastern border and work out how it would “maintain ownership of its skies while breaking through enemy defenses to secure more airspace.”
Hecker said his top priority has become figuring out how to counter air and missile defenses, electronic jamming, and other anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, as they are known in military parlance, that would keep the US out of Russian territory.
NATO Air Policing Missions over Romania or the Baltics involve Eurofighter Typhoons, SAAB Gripens, F-16s, F/A-18s, and Dassault Rafale aircraft from the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Italy, Norway or the Netherlands. Traditionally, they are used for posturing and to mark their presence as a form of deterrence with regular flights of fleets of various aircraft types over the alliance’s borders.
What It Means
The description by Hecker implies that every plain overflight now involves air combat drills to refine tactical and piloting skills, putting to the test both aviators and ground crew of the various air forces. Ukraine has lost many aircraft to long-range Russian air-to-air missiles fired from its Su-35 or Su-30SM2 fighters.
While clarifying that he does not believe Russia wants a war with NATO and vice versa, Hecker maintains that continuous practice and exercise are necessary to further strengthen “deterrence” for Moscow. Its air force will be watching the consistent training and would be dissuaded from making ambitious air combat plans or even taking its combat experience for granted.
Air combat tactics involve a combination of coordinated employment of a single type or a mix of fighter jets and various methods of using their radars and missiles at different speeds and altitudes. Hecker’s announcement also indirectly highlights Western militaries’ combat inexperience after having fought non-state actors for around 20 years, as noted by its own government and military leaders.
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Interestingly, the new chief of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Air Chief Marshal Richard Knighton too, had named the same tactical goals in a July speech at the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference in the UK. “We’re going to have to break into our integrated air and missile defenses of our adversaries,” Knighton had said.
However, the current military preparedness and industrial crisis in Europe – a result of sanctions on Russian energy and depletion of their ammunition stockpiles after arming Ukraine – has put a question mark on whether the UK or any other NATO country has the military capacity for a war with Russia.
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) noted in a February 2023 report that no European NATO air forces currently have sufficient expertise or the required munitions stocks to suppress and destroy enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) at scale.
“The lethality of mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems on both sides in Ukraine is a vivid reminder of the consequences of an inability to conduct SEAD/DEAD at scale. The report said that without such capacity, European NATO air forces could not credibly achieve and exploit air control over a battlefield contested by Russian forces or even by near-peers such as Iran,” the report said.
The report noted the Western preoccupation in wars with non-state actors with “operations in permissive and semi-permissive airspace for decades, and whose high-end warfighting capabilities are largely air-to-air focused.”