Home / Robert Farley / Airpower Makes People Stupid

Airpower Makes People Stupid


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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  • Even back in the day we used to say “You can shoot down all the MiGs you want but if the Russian tank commander is eating lunch in your snack bar when you get back to base you’ve lost”.

    • sibusisodan

      Or the alternative version: one Soviet General of Tanks runs into another as they parade victoriously through Paris: ‘Oh, by the way – who won the air war?’

    • e.a.foster

      loved it and oh how true./

  • BigHank53

    If the Russian air force is “far inferior”, why did we need to spend so much money on the F-22, anyway?

    • kindasorta

      Because it’s only welfare when it helps poor brown people.

      • Anonymous

        Because it’s only welfare when it helps poor brown people.

        Well that was fast. It only took four comments to make this a race issue.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          well hurry up and get us back on track! why *do* we need the f-22?

          • Procopius

            Yes, why do we need the F-22? Especially since, from public reports, if we send 50 or 60 of them that will mean on any given day 2 or 3 will be available for use for an hour or two. Incredibly powerful, when they work — which is rarely.

        • kindasorta

          Lockheed Martin delivered a third of the promised F-22s for three times the bargained-for cost, ten years later than planned. They’re in the process of doing the same thing with the F-35, and neither the Air Force nor the White House seems disposed to stand on their rights as purchasers with a contract and make Lockheed eat the cost overrun.

          To me, that’s one hell of a giveaway to Lockheed Martin for no reason that makes sense economically or strategically. Welfare for contractors, at the same huge cost but with none of the social opprobrium that comes with welfare for individuals.

    • Because if the F-15 is any indication we’ll still be flying F-22s in 30-40 years and other countries will likely have caught up by then.

      • kindasorta

        Or we’ll have moved on to drones.

  • Zachary Smith

    The F-22 is undoubtedly a fine airplane, but it’s not invincible. First of all, the thing has to land somewhere, and on the ground it’s vulnerable to all kinds of threats. Landing and takeoff is also a problem unless security troops surround the base to quite a distance. In the air, a swarm of modern jets might well simply overwhelm a smaller group of F-22s. And the latest Russian ground-based missiles could have some unpleasant surprises in store.

    • Arouet

      I think this hypothetical deployment of F-22s is absurd, but I also think it’s ridiculous to suggest the F-22 would be in any danger of not having a place to land if deployed this way. You think if a few Russian Air Force planes drop out of the sky Russia is going to invade Poland and provoke a WW3 which it will inevitably lose and lose badly? I don’t buy that.

      • Zachary Smith

        I didn’t mean to imply the airplane wouldn’t have a place to land, but rather that an F-22 on the ground is just another mechanical device.


        I’m going to assume the Spetnaz is at least as capable as the Taliban, and with access to many more weapons like artillery and cruise missiles.

        As for invulnerability in the air, I doubt that too. The F-22 has been around for a long time, and IMO everybody has contingency plans in place if they need to fight it.

      • Warren Terra

        provoke a WW3 which it will inevitably lose and lose badly?

        My fear of a WW3 is of a war everyone will lose badly. Not yours, I see.

      • bob sykes

        The deployment of the F 22’s itself ignites WW III. The obvious response of an attack by the F 22’s would be to hydrogen bomb some second tier European cities in countries without nuclear weapons. How about Prague or Buda-Pest. Big enough to hurt, but would the US/UK/France actually launch a large-scale nuclear counter-attack.

        The Crimea is a permanent part of Russia as long as it exists as an identifiable country. It has already lasted 1,000 years, so it has some time left.

        Putin’s offer to Obama is reasonable and benefits everyone: a nonaligned, federal Ukraine. This also lets Obama and the Euros climb down from the escalation ladder that is leading to war.

        It has the side benefit that the EU has to bailout the Ukraine, and Russia gets the $15 B or so owed it.

    • From what I’ve been told by people who’ve flown it and flown against it:

      If you have four F-22s fully data-linked you can throw as many F-15s as you’ve got at them and when the F-22s run out of missiles they’ll turn around go home.

      Apparently it really is that good.

      • Marek

        We should get more of those then, instead of F-35s.

        • I think the reasoning behind the F-35 is that the F-22 can’t carry much in the way of bombs.

          The F-22 is a specialized air-superiority fighter like the F-15.

          The F-35 is supposed to replace the F-16, F/A-18 and Harrier.

          I’m not sure if the F-35 can really do that but I’m not sure they could make the F-22 do it either.

          • Marek

            Yeah, I was being glib. Forgot to use the appropriate emoticons.

          • agorabum

            It can’t, because the F-16 is only $20 million (ok, probably more like $35 million with current electronics upgrades). But the point of it is that isn’t that expensive, and can do a lot of things.
            The F-35 will be able to do the same basic things – perhaps as good as the F-16, even – but will just be way more expensive, and so far less in numbers. The F-16 complemented the F-15 with a hi/lo cost mix (F-16 being lo). With the F-22 and F-35, we just have a hi/hi.
            We still need the lows (which we could get by keeping the 16 and A-10 around)

      • Robert Farley

        This accords with what I’ve been told.

      • Murc

        Apparently it really is that good.

        The F-22 is one of the few cases where I believe the press surrounding it, for one simple reason: historically, the Air Force downplays how effective it’s aircraft are. That allows them to buy more of them, and it allows them to look like big men when their pilots and aircraft preform “above expectations.”

        If even the Air Force is saying “the F-22 is basically invincible” that’s something I’m tentatively prepared to accept, because if it were vulnerable, at all, you can bet they’d be raising hue and cry to buy more more more.

      • Kyle

        Or until the pilots suffocate from the faulty oxygen system.

  • Marek

    Particularly egregious is the idea that the agreement to strip Ukraine of its nuclear weapons somehow extended the American nuclear umbrella over Kiev. That’s absurd, but that’s essentially what Gelb (and the others who think the treaty should be read that way) are saying. The United States is not going to fight a war with a major nuclear power without an explicit commitment to do so. (Maybe not even then, but let’s not go there now.)

    Also, while I think it might be worth it for the Ukranian government (not ours) to explore forming irregular forces, the differences between the geography and politics of Ukraine and those of Afghanistan make the comparison risible.

    • Davis X. Machina

      ….the differences between the geography and politics of Ukraine and those of Afghanistan make the comparison risible.

      Tell it to the Banderists.

      • Marek

        I’m not on speaking terms with that crowd.

  • simple mind

    …the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies…

    Gee, that’s Operation Barbarossa talk.

    • FMguru

      Kick down the door, and the whole rotten house will collapase!

      • Procopius

        Isn’t that what Thomas Friedman said about Iraq/Afghanistan/Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Somalia/Libya/etc.?

        Oh, no, now I remember, he said something about, “Suck on this!”

  • JohnTh

    I have huge sympathy for the Ukrainians, but any solution to their problems that involves even a real possiblity of a deliberate exchange of fire between NATO and Russian forces should be comprehensively off the table. The only reply to the kind of analysis offered by Gelb is: ‘A shooting war with the Russians! – are you out of your f*ing mind?’

    Even if we win (probably), virtually nothing is worth that.

  • MattC

    “[F-22s would] punish Russian armies.”

    They would? 2 JDAMs at a time?

    That’s gonna take awhile.

    By all means, boost the forces in Poland and the Baltics to increase the deterrent. But the idea that Putin is going to get cold feet because of American fighter aircraft in the neighborhood that he knows damn well we won’t use is freaking pathetic.

    Only thing more pathetic is the idea that if we can’t prevent the Russians from invading Eastern Ukraine, we should just start unilaterally shooting down Russian aircraft. That’s freaking smart.

    Why are the reborn Cold Warriors so stupid?

    • Procopius

      Also, too:

      When the U.S. sought to assure Asian allies that it would defend them against potential aggression by North Korea this spring, the Pentagon deployed its top-of-the-line jet fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

      But only two of the jets were sent screaming through the skies south of Seoul.

      .A Times, June 16, 2013
      It seems we don’t have a whole lot of them.

  • MikeJake

    I love how the neocons wrote blank checks to everyone in Russia’s backyard, with pretty much no discussion or debate, and now they expect us to honor them because…resolve?

    NATO has been obsolete for 20 years.

  • joe from Lowell

    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.

    The F-22 can carry two 1000 pound bombs, and that’s it.

    Somebody with a shiny new hammer is looking for anything nail-like.

  • mike in dc

    I don’t think the US should go beyond bolstering NATO allies in the region and(in the event of a full-blown invasion of all of Ukraine) sending military aid(weapons, ammo, fuel, food rations, satellite intelligence and communications intercepts). The real tough decision is for Poland, Moldova, the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovenia(and maybe Turkey)…if the balloon goes up, do they send troops to Ukraine? Unlike the US, they actually do have a security interest and don’t want Russian tanks on their borders(again).

  • agorabum

    A-10s going against T-90s (with perhaps some F-22s as air support to keep the skies above clear for the A-10s).
    What is the Ukrainian version of the Fulda gap…
    I kid, since “Let’s do something….Airpower!” only works when the other guy can’t really fight back. It still doesn’t sound like a good idea with Russia, but it ought to cause the DoD to reconsider winding the ol’ A-10 down…

  • Mork Proptico

    Are we quite certain that the F22 is THAT much better than four times as many Sukhois, or eight times as many if you only count the operational ones at any given moment?

    • Andrae

      Not to mention they will be operating within the umbrella of the most advanced IADS system in the world. Then consider that 50-60 F22’s represent 1/3 of an irreplaceable strategic asset.

  • e.a.foster

    I don’t know how old any of the writers on this article are, but we used to have a sign which said, “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day”. You can send all the F22s or any other type of jet fighter, but if Putin feels he is loosing, make no mistake about it, he will push a button and he won’t care where it lands. As Ms. Merkle said, when Putin started this, after she spoke to him, He isn’t dealing with reality

    • Except Merkel says she didn’t claim Putin was unhinged, rather that his view of the crisis was at variance with hers and other Western leaders.

  • As a certain rapper once said, “Don’t believe the hype.” You can make all the claims about how effective the F22 is, but you can’t really be sure until it actually gets used in extensive combat.

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