The Russian military options in Ukraine laid out in the first part of this series would, of course, not take place in a vacuum. Apart from opposition by Ukrainian forces, the Russian military would have to account for a potential response from the United States or a coalition of NATO countries. Whether or not the United States would be willing to go to war over an invasion of Ukraine, Russia cannot afford to ignore the possibility when examining its options and estimating their potential for success.
If the United States and/or NATO were to respond to an overt Russian offensive in Ukraine, the quickest and possibly only desirable means of deploying firepower to the theater would be to use air assets. Although NATO and the United States have substantial ground forces that could be deployed to Eastern Europe and into Ukraine when needed, transporting these forces and their equipment to the theater would require a great deal of time. Even then, ground forces probably would not be committed without the achievement of air superiority. For this reason, our study of potential Western counteractions hinges on the ability to deploy a considerable amount of air power into Ukraine to halt or roll back a Russian offensive.
Such an operation would be complex, involving the deployment of air assets to airfields near Russian forces, arranging logistical support for that deployment, conducting operations against Russian air defenses and eventually launching a ground campaign to reduce Russian military capabilities inside Ukraine. As Russia evaluates its military options, it will have to account for a worst-case scenario in which NATO countries in Eastern Europe open up their air bases to a considerable deployment of the U.S. Air Force and offer logistical support.
The Challenges of Deploying Aircraft
Before being able to initiate full-scale air operations against the Russian forces, the United States and its European allies would need to deploy a massive number of fighter aircraft near Ukraine. These aircraft not only would have to deplete Russian ground-based air defenses ahead of a ground attack, but they would also be facing significant Russian air assets deployed to support the offensive operations. This means the highest possible number of advanced fighter aircraft would be required to achieve the strategic weight needed for a difficult air superiority effort.
European air forces are already relatively close to the Ukrainian theater, but forward deployment to airfields closer to Ukraine would still be required to limit flight time to targets and to reduce the strain on aerial refueling capabilities, which will already be stretched thin in an operation of this size and scope. The United States, however, faces the additional challenge of a strategic deployment of air assets from the continental United States to Eastern Europe. Various factors, such as the availability of aerial tankers and the strategic airlift and airfield capacity at the destination or intermediate landings, influence the rate at which these aircraft can be deployed.
The U.S. Air Force would be able to deploy its first aircraft in theater relatively quickly, mostly because of the pre-positioning of several fighter squadrons at air bases in Europe. Three F-15 squadrons stationed at the Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, two F-16 squadrons stationed at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, and an F-16 Squadron stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany could be deployed to airfields in Eastern Europe within the first 48 hours of the deployment.
What a Deployment Would Look Like
Assuming a best-case scenario, the entire deployment of about 22 fighter squadrons would take approximately 11 days. Priority likely would be given to the latest-generation air superiority fighters and aircraft specializing in suppression of enemy air defenses, since these roles would be dominant in the first phases of the air campaign. Other platforms, such as the A-10 ground attack aircraft, likely would be deployed in the last phase of the deployment because their mission would become feasible only after a significant deterioration of Russian air defenses.
Rotary wing assets could also follow at that point to increase ground attack capabilities, but great numbers are unlikely to be committed until air superiority is established and advanced air defense systems no longer pose a threat. Unmanned aerial vehicles would also be expected to make up a significant share of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance effort supporting the operation. These would be deployed early on and would include both tactical systems with relatively low footprints and shorter ranges or loitering times and higher-level systems that can operate from airfields beyond the theater. They could also be used in a limited ground attack capability, but the requirement for reliable intelligence on Russian movement and positions means the drones likely would be reserved for an intense surveillance effort during the early phases of the campaign.
U.S. and allied air power would be able to stage out of the numerous air bases available in Eastern Europe. Staging would focus on more than 30 military airfields in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, with many more available in Italy and Germany, farther from the theater. Strategic aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets could make use of the airfields in Germany and Italy, while the tactical squadrons could deploy closer to Ukraine. A deployment to airfields in western Ukraine could be possible, but the threshold would be lower for Russia to strike at these airfields, whereas the political and military cost for Russia would outweigh the benefit of disrupting operations at airfields in NATO territory. The same risk of escalation would likely limit U.S. and NATO intent to conduct operations inside Russia proper.
Because of the massive numbers of aircraft that would need to be deployed for this endeavor, the United States would also deploy aircraft carriers, likely to the Aegean Sea (the Montreux Convention prevents aircraft carriers from entering the Black Sea, where they would be easier targets for Russian attacks). Thus, at least two carrier wings could be deployed to the theater in as many weeks, and a third could join during the fourth week of the deployment.
The Time Factor
Because of the time needed to deploy various U.S. air assets into the theater, full-scale operations could realistically begin only after Russian offensive operations had already achieved most of their objectives. This means that Russia would have been able to move mobile air defenses into the theater, and the air campaign would be aimed at deteriorating Russian defensive capabilities in Ukraine rather than blunting its initial attack.
However, prior to the completion of the massing of aircraft in Eastern Europe, preparatory operations could occur using air-launched standoff missiles or sea-launched cruise missiles to target Russian air defenses, supply depots and potentially airfields used by Russian aircraft inside Ukraine. The next phase would then likely lean heavily on the F-16CJ "Wild Weasel" and any available allied aircraft equipped with radar-seeking missiles that home in on active radar signals from ground-based air defenses. These aircraft would be used to significantly damage the Russian air defense network, or at the very least limit the use of active radars, which would significantly deteriorate the Russians' ability to target U.S. and allied aircraft operating in the airspace over the battlefield. At this point, the main Russian threat to air superiority would be its aircraft fleet, and air combat would likely result in significant attrition on both sides.
The exact outcome of this phase is difficult to predict but is likely to favor the larger number of NATO aircraft with more advanced capabilities than the Russian force. Nonetheless, both sides have notable advantages and disadvantages that would influence the outcome of the air combat.
The Russian air force would have the advantage of operating close to home and out of its own air bases, enabling it to conduct a higher rate of sorties per aircraft than the forward-deployed NATO aircraft. However, the air fleet that the United States and its European allies could assemble is substantially larger than the fleet the Russians could field, and as a result the total amount of possible sorties per day would still be higher for NATO. Russia would have the advantage of operating over its own ground-based air defense network. By this point in the operation it would be significantly diminished, but the air defenses would still threaten NATO aircraft and force them to carry radar-seeking missiles and ground attack ammunitions, while Russian aircraft would be able to limit their loads to lighter air-to-air packages. The NATO forces, on the other hand, would benefit from better stealth capabilities and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
U.S. and NATO forces would also have the benefit of having more experience in expeditionary deployments in the past decade. Not only do pilots have more combat experience, but ground crews and commanders also have extensive experience conducting maintenance and logistics on a large scale. Interoperability between NATO partners has also been strengthened during deployments in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Russian forces, on the other hand, have not operated under that kind of pressure.
From the perspective of Russian planners in this scenario, the uncertainty of Russia's ability to maintain air superiority means that any gains it makes could be unsustainable. Obtaining air superiority would allow the United States and NATO to conduct a devastating ground attack campaign that by itself could destroy the combat effectiveness of Russian units deployed into Ukraine. It is also important to keep in mind that at this point in the scenarios, with at least several weeks having passed, U.S. and European ground forces would have had plenty of time to complete deployments to Eastern Europe. With the possibility of the deployment of significant ground forces, and NATO air assets achieving air superiority, Russian military planners have to presume that if their offensive operations were to be contested militarily, they would be unsustainable.
As part of our analytical methodology, Stratfor periodically conducts internal military simulations. This series, examining the scenarios under which Russian and Western forces might come into direct conflict in Ukraine, reflects such an exercise. It thus differs from our regular analyses in several ways and is not intended as a forecast. This series reflects the results of meticulous examination of the military capabilities of both Russia and NATO and the constraints on those forces. It is intended as a means to measure the intersection of political intent and political will as constrained by actual military capability. Part 1 discussed several scenarios for a Russian invasion. This study is not a definitive exercise; instead it is a review of potential decision-making by military planners. We hope readers will gain from this series a better understanding of military options in the Ukraine crisis and how the realities surrounding use of force could evolve if efforts to implement a cease-fire fail and the crisis escalates.