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Airpower Makes People Stupid

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Oh, hell.

How can the U.S. add muscle in the present Ukraine crisis?

The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region.

There’s no sense at all in making this move unless Obama unambiguously resolves to use the F-22s. The worst thing to do is bluff. Nor would the dangers end there even if Obama were not bluffing; Putin might think he was bluffing anyway and start a war.  With all these complications and risks, the Obama team still should give this option a serious look—and let Russia and our NATO partners know this tough course is under serious consideration. Obama has sent a few F-15’s and F-16’s to Eastern Europe, some military aid to Ukraine and other states. But everyone knows this is tokenism.

I have prepared a short dialogue illustrating the history of airpower thought:

Sagredo: “We must do something!”
Salviati: “But what? The situation is complex.”
Simplicio: “I know!  Airpower!

Some additional thoughts:

  • The difference between the US commitments to Ukraine and to Estonia lies not with a particular technology, but rather in the nature of the political relationship. A commitment of US military power might well deter Russia (although it would likely have unpredictable second order effects) but this commitment does not depend on any specific technology.
  • Given what appears to be the balance of forces between Ukraine and Russia, and given especially the apparent political unreliability of the Ukrainian military, it is not at all certain that “50 or 60 of our incredibly potent F-22s” could actually prevent a Russian military victory. Russia could prevent the loss of its own air force by simply refusing to accept combat against the F-22s, and using its overwhelming ground superiority and short-range ballistic missile capabilities to overrun Ukrainian air bases. A much larger NATO commitment that included ground attack aircraft might make a difference, but this reinforces the point that the political commitment, not the technology, is what matters.
  • Washington punditry, Gelb included, remains drunk on the promise of “resolve” and “toughness.” The issue here has nothing to do with nebulous concerns about American toughness, and everything to do with the specific commitments that the United States has to Ukraine. Given that Ukraine was a Russian client state until two months ago, it’s hardly surprising that no one (including Putin) believes that the United States will fight to preserve our relationship with Kiev. The threat of force is a transparent bluff, impressive only to idiots besotted with Putin’s sense of machismo.

 

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