U.S. Deploys F-16s, F-15s and Nuclear Capable B-52 Bombers to Face Russia in Europe

Amid high tensions with Russia, and following multiple warnings from NATO leaders that Moscow could be planning an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, the United States Air Force has made a series of deployments of combat aircraft to forward positions in the European theatre. The first of these, reported on February 10, saw F-15C/D Eagle heavyweight fighters deployed to Lask Airbase in Poland to support Baltic Air Policing missions. The aircraft were deployed in relatively small numbers, but were equipped with AIM-120 air to air missiles befitting their role. An Allied Air Command statement noted regarding the deployment: “The extra fighters will bolster readiness and allied deterrence and defence as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine.” The F-15 has served in the U.S. Air Force since 1976, with the C/D variant entering service around 1980. The fighters were designed primarily for combat in Europe theatre against the Soviet Air Force, although their ability to go head to head with modern Russian fighters has been repeatedly brought to question by American military officials. 

A second fighter deployment announced on February 11 saw the F-15’s lighter and cheaper counterpart the F-16, which began to enter service two years later from 1978, deploy to Romania. Images showed that the unit were armed with live AIM-120 missiles, as opposed to inert ones used in training, indicating high levels of operational readiness. The aircraft belong to the 52nd Fighter Wing, and were forward deployed from Germany. The F-16 is the most widely fielded fighter in both the U.S. Air Force and in NATO, and is older and lighter than any fighter in the Russian Air Force. The aircraft’s continued viability on 21st century battlefields has continually been brought into question by U.S. and allied military officials, some of which have claimed it will be obsolete by 2024. Years long delays in getting its replacement the stealthy F-35 ready for even medium intensity combat have forced the Air Force to continue to rely heavily on the F-16. The fighter has a much shorter range, lower endurance, smaller sensors suite and weaker flight performance than the higher end F-15 or than frontline Russian fighters such as the Su-30SM or Su-35. Forward deployment of American fighters come as Russia has redeployed its own high-performance aircraft, namely Su-35s, from its far eastern regions to Belarus, while deploying newly commissioned Su-30SM2 jets to Kaliningrad.

The U.S. Air Force’s third and most notable deployment was of B-52H nuclear capable strategic bombers from North Dakota to the United Kingdom, with four bombers from the 69th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Wing, taking part alongside supporting tankers and a C-5M Galaxy transport carrying associated equipment and personnel. Despite dating back to the Vietnam War, the B-52H is fielded in larger numbers than any other western bomber by a considerable margin, and is relied on heavily to deliver nuclear weapons from the air using a range of advanced standoff cruise missiles. The aircraft can also deliver non-nuclear precision guided weapons, and can do so from well outside the ranges of enemy air defences. The bombers can engage targets across much of Russia with nuclear warheads without moving too far outside British airspace, making them a uniquely potent asset that sends a strong signal to Moscow. Russia’s own bombers and strike fighters, however, notably have similar standoff missile ranges which will likely make airfields hosting B-52s a priority target in the event of conflict. Further deployments remain possible shit tensions not abate, although this will divert U.S. attentions and resources away from other theatres such as the Middle East and East Asia which many analysts have warned could be too great a cost to pay.

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