NATO’s Eastern Flank To Be Fortified By U.S. F-35s, AH-64s, Troops

The Pentagon says it is sending U.S. Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, as well as U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and ground forces, to various locations along NATO’s eastern flank. President Joe Biden announced these deployments, which all involve elements already positioned in Europe, earlier today. He said that these moves were in direct response to the continued presence of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus that, together with other forces arrayed across Russia’s borders with Ukraine, remain poised to attack that country. This also comes after the Kremlin ordered troops into disputed Ukrainian territory yesterday, which Biden said constitutes an invasion, as you can read more about in The War Zone‘s earlier coverage of this crisis.

As part of these deployments, as many as eight Air Force F-35As presently in Germany will disperse to “several operating locations along NATO’s eastern flank,” according to a statement from the Pentagon today. A contingent of 20 Army AH-64s in Germany will head to unspecified locations in the Baltic Sea region. Another 12 Apaches currently in Greece are set to relocate to Poland. Lastly, an Army infantry battalion task force consisting of approximately 800 personnel will deploy from Italy to the Baltic Sea region.

“These additional forces are being repositioned to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression, and train with host-nation forces,” the Pentagon’s statement said. “These moves are temporary in nature, and are part of the more than 90,000 U.S. troops already in Europe on rotational and permanent orders.”

The Pentagon did not say specifically what units would be providing these forces. 

With regards to the F-35As, the Air Force does not have any of these jets permanently deployed in Germany. Aviation Week’s Brian Everstine has reported that these aircraft are from the 34th Fighter Squadron based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. A contingent of Joint Strike Fighters from Hill arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany last week. That force included pilots and other personnel from the 388th Fighter Wing, an active-duty unit to which the 34th Fighter Squadron is assigned, and the Air Force Reserve’s 419th Fighter Wing, both based at Hill.

F-35A Joint Strike Fighters from Hill Air Force Base arrive at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany on February 16, 2022., USAF

In addition to simply providing NATO with additional stealthy aerial combat capacity, the Air Force F-35As offer valuable electronic intelligence collection capabilities. U.S. intelligence assessments Russia’s military movements along its western borders, and in neighboring Belarus, have already been based in no small part on a steady stream of information from U.S. and NATO manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft flying persistent missions over Ukraine and over adjacent areas.

The Army currently has AH-64s permanently based at Katterbach Army Airfield in Germany as part of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. Official Army pictures show that Apaches from the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, an element from the 1st Cavalry Division‘s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade at Fort Hood in Texas, are currently forward-deployed at Stefanovikeio Air Base in Greece.

An AH-64E Apache from the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment at Stefanovikeio Air Base in Greece on February 21, 2022., US Army

The latest versions of the Apache have substantial surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that the Army could use to help monitor border areas, in addition to being on call for other contingencies. This could be especially useful in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which share borders with Russia and Belarus to the east. Poland also has a significant border with Belarus.

Lastly, the infantry battalion task force is more than likely from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, the service’s only permanently deployed maneuver combat unit in the country. The 173rd is one of the Army’s go-to units for responding to contingencies in Europe and elsewhere and has elements on standing alert, ready to go within hours.

The F-35As will join Air Force F-15s and F-16s deployed to the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions as part of this broader effort to reinforce areas of NATO’s periphery near Russia. Other NATO member states have forward-deployed various types of fighters. 

The Army attack helicopters and troops from Italy will join thousands of other personnel that the service has deployed across Europe in recent weeks. The Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is primarily equipped with Stryker wheeled armored vehicles, and the U.S.-based 82nd Airborne Division, one of America’s premier contingency response forces, have supplied the bulk of these forces. The 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, which is equipped with Avenger short-range air defense systems and is also based in Germany, has sent contingents to help shield temporary base camps in Poland and Romania, too. Army aviation elements equipped with various types of Black Hawk helicopters have been observed operating those countries recently, as you can read more about here.

U.S. special operations forces may now be positioned forward at locations in Europe to help support the response to any future contingencies. For instance, official pictures indicated that elements of the U.K.-based 352nd Special Operations Wing were deployed to Powidz Air Base in Poland, at least as of February 20. MC-130J Commando II special operations tanker-transports and CV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors, possibly from the 352nd and operating from Powidz, may have been involved in the temporary relocation of personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to a site in neighboring Poland yesterday, something you can find more details about here.

A number of U.S. Navy warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and its associated strike group and a quartet of Arleigh Burke class destroyers are in European waters where they could contribute the broader effort to bolster NATO’s maritime force posture, as well as take part in various exercises. Truman was notably placed under the alliance’s control for an exercise last month, the first time this had been done since the end of the Cold War. That carrier also trained with the French and Italian carriers FRS Charles de Gaulle and ITS Cavour earlier this month.

“Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part,” President Biden said earlier today about these deployments. “We have no intention of fighting Russia.”

While the U.S. government has no intention to directly intervene militarily in the crisis surrounding Ukraine, American officials have acknowledged the possibility that a large-scale conflict there could spill over onto NATO territory in Europe. U.S. authorities have said that there are no active plans to conduct any major operation to help American nationals evacuate from Ukraine, but have declined to rule out that potentiality entirely. 

The movement of Embassy personnel between sites in Ukraine and Poland, something the U.S. State Department says will continue to happen on a regular basis, underscores the kinds of more limited contingencies that might arise and require military support.

The overall situation in and around Ukraine remains highly fluid and the risk of a major conflict erupting continues to be very real. “We still believe that Russia is poised to go much further in launching a massive military attack against Ukraine,” Biden said today.

“I hope I’m wrong about that, hope we’re wrong about that,” he continued. “But Russia has only escalated its threat against the rest of Ukrainian territory, including major cities and including the capital city of Kyiv. …there are still well over 150,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine.”

In the meantime, “we want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our Allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO,” the president said.

These additional U.S. fighter jets, attack helicopters, and troops, only further underscore that commitment amid one of the most serious crises in Europe in decades.

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