More US military planes turn to Eastern Europe as possible Russian invasion of Ukraine looms
The US Air Force is bolstering its attack jet presence in Eastern Europe as the NATO alliance attempts to prevent a possible Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine this month.
American officials would have believed Russia will attack Ukraine within the next two weeks, pointing to February 16 as the possible start of a physical assault.
About 6,000 soldiers have been deployed from the United States to Europe, almost all of whom are soldiers with the 82nd Army Airborne Division. They are supported by a growing number of military aircraft and rapid response airmen who can quickly create space on an airfield to launch combat operations from anywhere.
American fighter jets stationed elsewhere on the continent moved further east, including squadrons from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany and RAF Lakenheath in England. B-52 bombers also arrived at RAF Fairford in England on Thursday for a previously scheduled European rotation, as air carriers continue to blast through the region.
“Collectively, this force is trained and equipped for a variety of missions aimed at deterring aggression and reassuring and defending European allies/partners,” U.S. European Command said Thursday. “To maintain an increased state of readiness, the Department of Defense has also repositioned European-based units further east and deployed additional US-based units to Europe.”
F-16 Fighting Falcons flew to Romania on Friday ‘to bolster regional security during ongoing tensions caused by Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’, EUCOM said in a press release the same day.
The Air Force fighters will train in air-to-air combat maneuvers with other NATO member nations, the command said, seeking to improve their ability to work together and communicate well in multinational air operations.
“The additional aircraft and crews will work closely with allies in the Black Sea region,” the command said. “US fighter units will also support NATO’s enhanced air policing mission, working closely with the Italian typhoons that have been guarding the skies since December 2021.”
NATO sought to bolster stability and security in Europe through air policing and other measures after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
The Allied Air Policing Initiative “demonstrates NATO’s solidarity, collective resolve and ability to adapt and expand its defensive missions and deterrence posture” as military tensions increase in the region, the EUCOM.
American F-15 Eagles arrived at Polish Łask Air Base a day earlier with much the same mission.
Alongside Polish and Danish F-16s, jet planes from England’s 48th Fighter Wing will patrol the Baltic skies. Like the F-16s going to Romania, the Eagles will also train in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat tactics.
“The American fighters will work closely with the Uedem Combined Air Operations Center based in Germany,” EUCOM said on Thursday. “The CAOC is responsible for directing, tasking and coordinating air operations of allocated resources across Northern Europe in times of peace, crisis and conflict.”
US Air Forces Europe previously noted that F-16s landed in Łask on January 4 for air policing on NATO’s eastern flank as well.
Earlier this month, Airmen from the 435th Contingency Response Group relocated from Germany’s Ramstein Air Base in Poland to prepare for a potential influx of Ukrainian evacuees in the event of a Russian invasion. A photo posted to the Pentagon’s online image repository on February 4 showed a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft preparing to depart.
The group is the only rapidly deployable US force in Europe capable of building a makeshift air base from which to launch operations anywhere on the continent.
“About 150 personnel from the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing deployed to support NATO allies and partners, specializing in combat communications, air traffic control, cargo transport and airfield management,” said the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein said Tuesday in a photo caption.
Other air units arrive from further away.
B-52 Stratofortresses from the 5th Bomb Wing from Minot AFB, North Dakota, showed up in England on Thursday as another sign of solidarity. While they have arrived on a recurring deployment intended to repel foreign aggressors – namely Russia – the bombers are part of a growing show of force in the region.
“With an ever-changing global security environment, it is essential that our efforts with our allies and partners be unified,” said General Jeff Harrigian, who oversees US Air Force operations in Europe and Africa. “We train and collaborate together in Europe, because cohesive integration is how we strengthen our collective air power.”
Massive C-17 Globemaster III transport planes left the United States for Ukraine earlier in February, including from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington – one of four Army installations in the United States. air force whose units were put on alert last month for a possible deployment in Eastern Europe.
Another of the four – Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio – did not say whether its C-17 reserve wing had also deployed.
A third standby base, Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, is home to the E-8C JSTARS aircraft which tracks ground targets over Europe. Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., the fourth base, referred questions about whether its EC-130H Compass Call electronic attack planes and others were assisting in Ukraine to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
The recent aircraft movements mark a departure from the Air Force’s earlier stance, which focused on reconnaissance missions monitoring the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders.
On Wednesday, military aircraft-spotting enthusiast Amelia Smith reported US Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint planes used for electronic eavesdropping and a JSTARS jet among nearly two dozen military surveillance aircraft collecting information over Europe. The RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones were also spotted on flight radars while gathering information about the area.
Continued and intense maritime surveillance of the Norwegian Sea by United States and Royal Air Force P-8A Poseidon jets, as well as Canadian CP-140 Auroras, “suggests that something of particular interest may be head towards the North Sea”. Smith said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Dover AFB in Delaware continued to pack Javelin anti-tank missiles and other hardware onto planes bound for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense attaché, Major General Borys Kremenetskyi, and Oksana Markarova, the country’s ambassador to the United States, watched the loading of cargo onto planes during a visit to Dover on Thursday. The United States has pledged more than $5.4 billion in military and other assistance to Ukraine since 2014.
“The shipment is part of the total $200 million in assistance agreed by US President Joe Biden as part of the growing threat from Russia,” the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States posted on Facebook on Thursday.
“We express our gratitude to the United States for the unwavering support of Ukraine and the strengthening of the defense capability of the Ukrainian military.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .