As Ukraine's air force dodges Russian missiles, the US and its allies are practicing to keep their jets flying while under attack

  • Ukraine's air force has remained operational in the face of ongoing Russian attacks.

  • It's able to do so largely because of its ability to disperse its aircraft and remain effective.

  • That success has added urgency to US Air Force's own work on dispersing its aircraft and airmen.

After 18 months of attacks by Russia's bigger and better equipped military, Ukraine's air force is still intact and operational. While neither side can control the air, Ukrainian jets can still get airborne and attack Russian forces.

That success stems from the Ukrainian air force's ability to dodge attacks by Russian aircraft, missiles, and drones, and it has added urgency to the US Air Force's focus on being able to distribute its forces and operate while under attack.

The Air Force's concept for such operations, called agile combat employment, or ACE, predates the war and was devised with the Pacific in mind, but events in Ukraine highlight the capabilities that the US and its allies need to develop, Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe, said at a Defense Writers Group event on August 18.

"Now we kind of see how they're doing and what's being effective for them by them moving their airplanes around against the threat that we would most likely face," Hecker said of the Ukrainians.

Air Force tactical air control party controller Finland
A US tactical air control party controller monitors airspace during Astral Knight 23 Part 6 in Rovaniemi, Finland on August 22.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Albert Morel

"Ukraine has been doing it for a year and a half, and they've gotten really good at it. We haven't been doing it very often," Hecker told reporters. "We do it, but not every day like they do, so we've just got to make sure that that we can be as proficient as they are."

Hecker said ACE is one of his top priorities, and it is part of the Air Force's work on resilient basing, which service leaders say is one of their "operational imperatives." Air Force units around the world have incorporated ACE into their exercises, training to deploy quickly to less developed bases, refuel and rearm on the go, and do more with fewer personnel.

As Hecker spoke last month, US airmen and aircraft from across Europe were converging on bases in Finland and Lithuania for Astral Knight 23 Part 6, an exercise focused on "proactive and reactive asset movements, as well as ground and aerial interoperability training" related to ACE.

"Astral Knight will continue to strengthen ally and partner interoperability while validating new ways to deploy and maneuver assets during a crisis or conflict," Lt. Gen. John Lamontagne, deputy commander US Air Forces Europe, said in a release at the start of the exercise.

Air Force crew chief F-16 Finland
A US crew chief does a post-flight inspection on an F-16 at Rovaniemi Air Base during Astral Knight 23 Part 6 on August 23.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Albert Morel

Running from August 18 to August 31, the drill was the culmination of a larger exercise that began in May to allow airmen from participating countries — including new NATO member Finland and Sweden, whose application is pending — to improve command-and-control and logistical procedures in the Arctic and Baltic regions.

The training included operations in Sweden and Latvia and work on integrating fourth- and fifth-generation jets, like F-16s and F-35s, the Air Force said.

"We were able to move metal and people quickly around the world and established continuous combat operations," doing so "on an extremely quick timeline," Capt. Quincy Watts, an F-16 instructor pilot with a squadron based at Aviano air base in Italy, said in a release at the end of the exercise.

"Over the course of the last week, we had the opportunity to take a highly motivated, tight-knit team from Aviano to two bases that were completely unknown to us," Watts said.

Watts said airmen from other career fields also trained to launch and recover jets while still performing their main duties, part of the Air Force's "multi-capable airmen" concept.

'Something that we're really getting after'

Air Force KC-135 tanker Sweden
A US Air Force KC-135 tanker is unloaded at Kallax Air Base in Sweden during Astral Knight 23 Part 6 on August 25.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Albert Morel

Like other Air Force commands, US Air Forces Europe regularly conducts ACE exercises. That work is in part about restoring some of the capacity that existed during the Cold War.

"If you go back 30, 40 years ago," Hecker said, "we had a lot of air bases that had a lot of protection at these bases, and back then, if I flew a fighter into any one of those bases, when I landed, no matter what country it was, they could give you gas, they could change your tires if you needed to, and some of them could even load up weapons on your aircraft."

"That atrophied over the last 30 years, so we are working to get that back," Hecker said.

The Air Force's concern is driven by the proliferation of precision weapons that could allow an adversary to pick off valuable targets. US officials worry that the long-range missiles China has developed over the past two decades would allow it to knock out the US's large main operating bases in that region early in a war. According to Hecker, similar strikes are possible against bases in Europe.

Dispersing aircraft and "high-value equipment" across different sections of one base is "not good enough now," Hecker said, adding that with more accurate weapons, an adversary "can just hit every single aircraft even if it's dispersed."

Finland air force pilots F-16
US airmen and Finnish Air Force pilots at Rovaniemi Air Base during Astral Knight 23 Part 6 on August 23.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Albert Morel

"What we have to do now is disperse our aircraft amongst different airfields and potentially even on highways and these kinds of things that Finland brings to the plate," Hecker added, referring to the practice of operating jets on sections of highway, which Finland and Sweden have long used and which the US Air Force has practiced in Estonia.

After Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2014, the US military stepped up its investment in bases and facilities in Europe through the European Deterrence Initiative. EDI funding dwindled in the years prior to Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2022 but has increased since then. The Pentagon's EDI budget request for 2024 includes nearly $500 million for the Air Force to improve base infrastructure and pre-positioned equipment.

Asked about plans to rebuild the capacity that atrophied after the Cold War, Hecker said his command would start by working on 20 or 25 bases "in strategic locations around Europe."

"We're going to put equipment in there that common aircraft need," Hecker added, "and then we're going to work with the nations and their maintenance so that we can get interoperable on different kinds of aircraft, like we were able to do 30, 40 years ago."

"That's something that obviously doesn't happen overnight, but as I said, it's one of my priorities, so it's something that we're really getting after," Hecker said.

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