In Europe, United States forces bolster a number of Brigade Combat Teams with the sole purpose of defending against the possibility of a Russian invasion. An important element of that defensive posture is the ability to deliver a great deal of air power throughout the region when needed, and as time goes on, the United States and its allies will increasingly rely on the capabilities of Lockheed Martin’s flag ship stealth fighter, the F-35.

Based on existing data, there’s not much Russia could do to curb the flow of F-35s delivering ordnance against their forces. The aircraft’s stealth profile combined with a greater degree of awareness than any fighter platform has ever offered before give the fifth-generation fighter a significant advantage over ground based air defenses and enemy fighter’s alike… but there’s one way even long-dated Russian missile platforms could spell trouble for America’s advanced fighters: attacking them while they’re still on the tarmac.

“If we went to war in Europe, there would be one Patriot battery moving, and it would go to Ramstein [in Germany]. And that’s it,” former deputy secretary of defense Robert Work said. “We have 58 Brigade Combat Teams, but we don’t have anything to protect our bases. So what difference does it make?”

That one Patriot Missile battery would not be enough to protect American allied air strips from a barrage of ballistic missiles or air strikes. Put simply, a lack of air defenses in Europe could significantly neuter an American airborne response, provided Russia chose to target F-35 heavy air strips. That’s the result Defense Department experts and analysts at the Rand Corporation keep running into as they play out European war simulations between Russia and NATO.

“In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky,” Work explained, “But it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

The F-35 may be proving to be exceptionally capable against aggressor aircraft in training exercises, but in a real conflict, these planes would need to land regularly to refuel and re-arm. It’s while on the ground that the most advanced fighter on the planet is at it’s most vulnerable. A quality Russian strategy would lean heavily on engaging these platforms while they’re landed to compromise their ability to operate over the battlefield.

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China, ‘blue’ gets its ass handed to it,” David Ochmanek, a RAND warfare analyst, explained about “Red on Blue” war simulations (Blue signifies American and allied forces). “We lose a lot of people. We lose a lot of equipment. We usually fail to achieve our objective of preventing aggression by the adversary.”


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force