The U.S. Air Force is building up its strike aircraft presence in Eastern Europe as the NATO alliance tries to prevent a potential Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine this month.
American officials reportedly believe Russia will attack Ukraine within the next two weeks, pinpointing Feb. 16 as the possible start of a physical assault.
About 6,000 troops have deployed from the U.S. to Europe, nearly all of whom are soldiers with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. They’re backed by a growing array of military aircraft and rapid-response airmen who can quickly make airfield space to launch combat operations from anywhere.
American fighter jets stationed elsewhere on the continent have moved farther east, including squadrons from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany and RAF Lakenheath in England. B-52 bombers also arrived at England’s RAF Fairford on Thursday for a previously planned European rotation, as airlifters continue to jump around the region.
“Collectively, this force is trained and equipped for a variety of missions to deter aggression and to reassure and defend European allies/partners,” U.S. European Command said Thursday. “To maintain a heightened state of readiness, the Department of Defense has also repositioned Europe-based units further east and forward-deployed additional U.S.-based units to Europe.”
F-16 Fighting Falcons headed to Romania on Friday “to reinforce regional security during the current tensions caused by Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine,” EUCOM said in a release the same day.
Air Force fighters will practice air-to-air combat maneuvers with other NATO member nations, the command said, looking to improve their ability to work together and communicate well in multinational air operations.
“The additional aircraft and crews will work closely with allies in the Black Sea region,” the command said. “U.S. fighter units will also support NATO’s enhanced air policing mission, working closely with the Italian Typhoons who have been safeguarding the skies since December 2021.”
NATO has sought to bolster stability and security in Europe through air policing and other measures after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
The allied air policing initiative “demonstrates NATO’s solidarity, collective resolve and its ability to adapt and scale its defensive missions and deterrence posture” as military tensions grow in the region, EUCOM said.
American F-15 Eagles arrived at Poland’s Łask Air Base one day earlier with much the same mission.
Together with Polish and Danish F-16s, the jets from the 48th Fighter Wing in England will patrol the skies over the Baltics. Like the F-16s going to Romania, the Eagles will also train on air-to-air and air-to-ground combat tactics.
“U.S. fighters will work closely with Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem based in Germany,” EUCOM said on Thursday. “The CAOC is responsible for directing, tasking and coordinating air operations of allocated assets across northern Europe in peace, crisis and conflict.”
U.S. Air Forces in Europe previously noted that F-16s landed at Łask on Jan. 4 for air policing on NATO’s eastern flank as well.
Earlier this month, airmen with the 435th Contingency Response Group relocated from Germany’s Ramstein Air Base to Poland to prepare for a potential influx of Ukrainian evacuees if Russia invades. A photo posted to the Pentagon’s online image repository Feb. 4 showed C-130J Super Hercules aircraft getting ready to leave.
The group is the only American quick-deploying force in Europe that can build a makeshift airbase from which to launch operations anywhere on the continent.
“Approximately 150 personnel from the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing deployed to support NATO allies and partners, specializing in combat communications, air traffic control, cargo transportation and airfield management,” the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein said in a photo caption Tuesday.
Other air units are coming from farther afield.
B-52 Stratofortresses from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, turned up in England on Thursday as another sign of solidarity. While they’ve arrived for a recurring deployment meant to fend off foreign aggressors — namely Russia — the bombers become part of a growing show of force in the area.
“With an ever-changing global security environment, it’s critical that our efforts with our allies and partners are unified,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who oversees U.S. Air Force operations in Europe and Africa. “We’re in Europe training and collaborating together, because consistent integration is how we strengthen our collective airpower.”
Massive C-17 Globemaster III transport planes left the U.S. for Ukraine earlier in February, including from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — one of four Air Force installations whose units were placed on alert last month for a possible deployment to eastern Europe.
Another of the four — Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio — hasn’t said whether its Reserve C-17 wing has deployed as well.
A third base on standby, Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, is home to the E-8C JSTARS aircraft tracking ground targets over Europe. Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, the fourth base, referred questions on whether its EC-130H Compass Call electronic attack planes and others are assisting in Ukraine to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
Recent aircraft movements signal a departure from the Air Force’s earlier posture, which centered on reconnaissance missions monitoring the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders.
On Wednesday, military plane-spotting hobbyist Amelia Smith pointed to U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint planes, used for electronic eavesdropping, as well as a JSTARS jet among nearly two dozen military surveillance aircraft collecting intel over Europe. RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones have also been spotted on flight radars while gathering information over the region.
Continued, intense maritime surveillance of the Norwegian Sea by U.S. and Royal Air Force P-8A Poseidon jets, plus Canadian CP-140 Auroras, “suggests something of particular interest could be making its way down towards the North Sea,” Smith said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Dover AFB in Delaware has continued packing Javelin anti-tank missiles and other materiel onto aircraft bound for Ukraine.
Ukrainian defense attaché Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetskyi and Oksana Markarova, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., watched the cargo file onto planes during a visit to Dover on Thursday. The U.S. has promised more than $5.4 billion in military and other aid to Ukraine since 2014.
“The cargo is part of the total $200 million aid agreed upon by U.S. President Joe Biden in connection with Russia’s growing threat,” the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. added on Facebook on Thursday.
“We express our gratitude to the United States for the unwavering support of Ukraine and strengthening the defense capacity of the Ukrainian army.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.