Missile-Laden F-16s Head To Romania Amid Fears Of Imminent War In Ukraine
The U.S. is deploying more forces to Eastern Europe as it warns Russia may launch an invasion of Ukraine at any time.
The U.S. Air Force announced today that an unspecified number of F-16C Viper fighter jets have deployed to Romania from their base in Germany. The U.S. Army has also disclosed that it sent a contingent of Avenger short-range air defense systems to that country earlier this week.
This is all part of a broader effort to bolster NATO's force posture along its eastern flank in order to reassure members of the alliance, of which Romania is one, and deter Russia. This comes as American officials, among others, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the possibility of the Kremlin kicking off a new large-scale military operation against Ukraine in the coming days.
The F-16Cs from the 52nd Fighter Wing based at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany left for Fetesti Air Base in Romania earlier today, according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). The Air Force released a number of pictures of the Vipers departing Spangdahlem. Interestingly, they show one of the fighters armed with live AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), as seen at the top of this story, while others are seen carrying inert AIM-120s, as well as AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, more typically carried during exercises. Having the inert missiles available will be useful for conducting training sorties alongside Romanian F-16s and other NATO aircraft while flying from Fetesti, in addition to being on call in case of contingencies.
This deployment is ostensibly in support of NATO's air policing mission in the Black Sea region. When they arrive, if they haven't already, the Vipers will join Italian Eurofighter Typhoons already in Romania, albeit at a different base, which have been serving in this role since December. At the same time, the Air Force and NATO have both made clear that these jets are flying in specifically in response to Russia's extremely worrisome buildup of forces along its borders with Ukraine, as well as in neighboring Belarus.
"The additional aircraft and crews will work closely with Allies in the Black Sea region to reinforce regional security during the current tensions caused by Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine," USAFE said in its release regarding the deployment. "The aircraft will complete a range of air-to-air training maneuvers with NATO Allies to strengthen interoperability and the enhanced communications link required to execute multinational air operations."
"The F-16 aircraft will significantly enhance NATO’s deterrence posture in NATO’s south-east region and provide additional responsiveness for the enhanced air policing mission,” French Air Force Lt. Gen. Pascal Delerce, the Deputy Commander of NATO's Allied Air Command, said in a statement. “Allied Air Forces are standing shoulder to shoulder to provide a robust collective defense and deliver constant vigilance across NATO airspace.”
The movement of these F-16s to Romania is only the latest example of a NATO member deploying combat aircraft within Europe in response to the worsening security station surrounding Ukraine. Just yesterday, a group of U.S. Air Force F-15C/D Eagles arrived in Poland for a similar deployment. A detachment of Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles touched down in Estonia last month to bolster the alliance's air policing forces in the Baltic Sea region, as well. Belgian, Polish, and Danish F-16s are also currently deployed to bases in Estonia and Lithuania.
In addition, four U.S. Air Force B-52H bombers landed in the United Kingdom yesterday as part of a previously planned Bomber Task Force deployment. However, the current geopolitical situation in Europe could very well have an impact on how those aircraft are utilized while they are in the region.
Separately, the Army released pictures today showing an Avenger-equipped contingent from the 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at their base in Germany as they prepared to travel by convoy to Romania earlier this week. It's unclear if these personnel are among the 1,000 troops that the U.S. government announced would be heading to that Eastern European country last week. At the time, the Pentagon only said that force would primarily consist of elements of the Army's Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is primarily equipped with variants of the 8x8 Stryker wheeled armored vehicle. 5-4th Air Defense Artillery is not part of that unit.
"Enhanced vigilance in Central and Southeastern Europe is a strong reflection of the will, unity and cohesion of the NATO Alliance by demonstrating readiness in multi-national operations," a caption attached to one of the pictures reads.
It's not clear how many Army Avengers have now gone to Romania. The pictures that the service has released so far show at least five of the vehicles preparing to leave Germany on February 7.
The Humvee-based Avenger system consists of a turret with two launchers, each containing four Stinger short-range heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. They are also equipped with a single .50 caliber M3P machine gun. Stinger is already a high-capable point-defense weapon against various aerial threats and the Army has been working to improve the missile's capabilities against small drones, a target set that is of ever-growing concern, in recent years.
5-4th Air Defense Artillery is also the first unit anywhere in the Army to field examples of the new Stryker-based Mobile Short Range Air Defense system, or M-SHORAD. However, there are no indications that any of those vehicles, which are also armed with Stinger, as well as millimeter-wave radar-guided AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missiles and a 30mm M230 automatic cannon, have gone to Romania. As of September 2021, the initial batch of M-SHORADs still had yet to demonstrate key capabilities in an operationally relevant environment and the system had significant, but unspecified deficiencies that were in need of fixing, according to the latest annual report from the Pentagon Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). It is unclear if testing and other work since then have resolved any of these issues.
The deployment of these fighter jets and air defense systems to Romania are just the latest examples of how the United States and other NATO members have sought to bolster the alliance's force posture along its eastern flank in recent weeks with additional air and ground forces, as well as naval assets.
reported yesterday that four U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers are now headed toward Europe, though their exact final destinations are unclear. The Navy's supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman and its associated carrier strike group, among other American ships and submarines, has already been in the Mediterranean Sea for weeks now and recently spent a period under NATO operational control as part of an exercise called Neptune Strike 22. The Truman Carrier Strike Group also recently conducted separate training with the French and Italian carriers Charles de Gaulle and Cavour, and their respective strike groups.
There is the distinct possibility that some American and other NATO warships will eventually make their way into the Black Sea as part of NATO's efforts to fortify areas along its periphery with Russia. Back in January, Spain announced plans to send naval vessels to the Black Sea as part of the alliance's broader reassurance and deterrence efforts.
The additional air and ground forces heading to the Black Sea region already are particularly notable given Russia's stated plans to conduct extensive live-fire naval drills in that body of water next week. Those forthcoming exercises have drawn significant criticism since the areas where the Russian government says its warships and other forces will be firing missiles and other weapons cover significant portions of the northern end of the Black Sea.
Though it initially insisted that its actions were entirely consistent with international laws and norms, the Kremlin has now, at least officially, decided not to extend those exercises into the adjacent Sea of Azov, as it had originally planned. At the same time, it has indicated that other live-fire drills will then take place there the following week. That smaller body of water has been largely under Russian control for years now.
Regardless, there are fears that all of this could amount to an effective blockade of much of Ukraine's coastlines, and could be an ideal cover for one prong of a new Russian military intervention. Russia already has a major military presence on the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014 and juts out into the Black Sea. The two countries have been engaged since 2014-2015 in a relatively low-level conflict in areas of eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, as well.
It remains as unclear as ever whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin will ultimately launch a new invasion of Ukraine. However, CNN and PBS have reported that the U.S. government and its allies had gathered new intelligence that indicated such an operation could come sometime in the next week, even before the end of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Experts and observers have long suggested that Putin would likely wait until after the end of the Olympics to avoid distracting from that event or otherwise embarrassing Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is currently one of his most significant international partners.
This reported intelligence would align with the U.S. State Department changing its travel advisory for Ukraine yesterday in small, but significant ways. U.S. citizens are now actively urged to leave the country at their earliest possible convenience, rather than the previous advice to simply consider doing so.
"U.S. citizens in Ukraine should be aware that the U.S. government will not be able to evacuate U.S. citizens in the event of Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine," the updated advisory added. "Military action may commence at any time and without warning and would also severely impact the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens in departing Ukraine."
These sentiments have been echoed by U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as other U.S. officials. The State Department had already authorized the departure of non-essential personnel in Ukraine, as well as the families of diplomatic staff, in January. Other countries are following suit, including Israel just today. Israeli journalist Barak Ravid posted on Twitter that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has apparently canceled a planned visit to Israel next week, as well.
It is important to note that the U.S. government has consistently denied it has any plans to conduct military operations in Ukraine against Russia on behalf of the government in Kyiv. However, American officials have also repeatedly declined to rule out the possibility of conducting an evacuation operation or that there might be spillover from such a conflict in neighboring allied countries.
"We don't exactly know what Mr. Putin has in mind. We don't exactly know what he's going to do," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a press conference on February 2. "And if it is another invasion and it does end up in armed conflict, the one thing that we've learned specifically over the last 20 years is armed conflict is difficult to predict with any great specificity."
"What we want to make sure is that there's a clear signal that we're not going to tolerate aggression against our NATO allies," he continued. "I can't be perfectly predictive about how this is going to go. And it's precisely because we can't be perfectly predictive that we want to be prepared and – and we want to be ready."
The Air Force F-16s and Army Avengers deployed to Romania, along with other U.S. and NATO forces now fanning out elsewhere on the continent, will certainly help [provide at least an additional margin of defense during any future contingency that might arise from the crisis surrounding Ukraine.
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