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The Bunker: Are F-16s Russia’s red line?

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: for more than a year, the U.S. and its allies have been sending beleaguered Ukraine ever more potent weapons to beat back the Russian invaders; is Putin approaching critical mass?; and more.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE

U.S. to Ukraine: No weapons. Maybe. OK, yes.

The U.S. back-and-forth over what weapons it will give Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion has become a parody of one-sided indecision. While it is sending Kyiv $37 billion(PDF) in military aid, it initially kept the big prizes — Patriot air defense batteries, M1 tanks, and F-16 jet fighters — on the sidelines. Sending too much too soon might unnerve Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been rattling his nuclear sabers since he launched the war in February 2022, the Biden administration fears. But, under international and congressional pressure to do more, the U.S. has steadily become emboldened as Ukraine has battled the Russians to a bloody stalemate, and as Putin has kept his nuclear weapons in their holsters.

First it involved the Patriot air-defense system(PDF), which consists of several networked vehicles that work together to shoot down incoming missiles or aircraft. “There’s no discussion about putting a Patriot battery in Ukraine,” a senior U.S. defense official said 14 months ago. “In order to do that, you’d have to put U.S. troops with it to operate it. It is not a system that the Ukrainians are familiar with. And as we have made very clear, there will be no U.S. troops fighting in Ukraine. So, there’s no discussion about putting Patriot batteries in Ukraine.”

But just before Christmas, Uncle Santa changed his tune and promised to deliver a $1.1 billion Patriot battery to Ukraine. Turns out, no U.S. troops were needed to operate the Patriot missiles. Back in January, the Pentagon said Ukrainians were heading to Oklahoma for “a training course expected to last several months.” In fact, they learned to operate the Patriot system in 10 weeks. “U.S. and western officials were pleasantly surprised by how quickly the Ukrainians learned how to operate the Patriots, which arrived in Ukraine last month,” CNN reported May 17.

But would they work against Russia’s hypersonic missiles? “It’s almost impossible to stop it,” President Biden said of Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles after they hit civilian targets in Ukraine a month into the war. “There’s a reason they’re using it.” But a year later, shortly after the Patriots arrived in Ukraine, the U.S. said they shot down at least one of them. If true — that a 1980s-era (but updated) missile-defense system downed one of Putin’s “next generation” weapons — the U.S. should consider tempering its hypersonic hype.

Then there was the M1 tank fight. Ukraine has wanted the heavy Abrams tanks to retake territory seized by the Russians since their invasion, but the U.S. repeatedly declined. “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive, it’s hard to train on,” explained a top Pentagon official. “It is not the easiest system to maintain.” But such concerns evaporated in January, when Biden green-lighted sending 31 M1s to Germany to train Ukrainian troops on them before dispatching them east to fight the Russians.

The latest flipflop involves F-16 fighters, which the Ukrainians have been seeking for months to keep the skies safe for their troops on the ground and to attack Russian targets. “There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military, now, to provide F-16s,” Biden said in February. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “needs tanks. He needs artillery … there are things he needs now that we’re sending him to put him in a position to be able to make gains this spring and this summer going into the fall.” But once again, on May 19, the U.S. pulled a 180. The U.S.-built jets most likely won’t come from the U.S., but Washington holds a veto over their re-export to Ukraine from any original buyer (25 nations are flying more than 3,000 F-16s). The 40 to 50 F-16s Ukraine wants could be flying over Kyiv by year’s end.

While Washington has been going wobbly over what weapons Ukraine gets, Moscow has been just as wishy-washy in response. Giving Patriots to Ukraine would be a “provocative move” that “could entail possible consequences,” the Russian Foreign Ministry warned in December (an unspecified Patriot battery suffered “minor” damage May 16; there is a second Patriot battery in Ukraine donated jointly by Germany and the Netherlands). In January, the Russian ambassador to Washington said that “if a decision to transfer to Kiev M1 Abrams is made, American tanks without any doubt will be destroyed” (while no M1s are yet in Ukraine — all 31 remain in Germany — there has been at least one report of an M1 being destroyed in Ukraine). The F-16 “OK” is generating similar rhetoric. “We can see that Western countries continue to stick to an escalation scenario, which carries enormous risks for them,” Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said the day after the F-16’s Immelmann turn. “In any case, we will take it into account when making plans. We have all the necessary means to achieve our goals.”

The U.S. and its allies seem determined to deny Putin success in Ukraine. That historically signals the end of Russian regimes. How desperate is Putin? No one knows where Putin’s red line is. It may not make any difference, according to some experts. “Putin is not waiting for a misstep by the West,” Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, wrote May 17 on Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs website. “He has been building the conditions for nuclear use in Ukraine since early in the war and is ready to use a nuclear weapon whenever he decides, most likely in response to his faltering military’s inability to escalate as much as he wishes by conventional means,” added Ryan, a former U.S. defense attaché in Moscow. “We should prepare responses for a new world in which the nuclear genie is out of the bottle.”

Biden approved F-16s for Ukraine during his recent trip to Japan. “War is uncertain,” he conceded May 21 at the Hiroshima Hilton (you can’t make this stuff up).

Tick…tick…tick…

“Those F-16s,” Biden added, “make a big difference in terms of being able to deal with what is coming down the road.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’swhat has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Mistaken identity

The Pentagon apparently killed an innocent Syrian sheep herder and father of 10 in a missile strike after erroneously targeting him as a senior al Qaeda terrorist, the Washington Post reported May 18.

Warcrybabies

U.S. defense contractors are “grossly mischaracterizing their financial well-being” according to a new Pentagon study, Julia Gledhill of the Project On Government Oversight reported May 22.

Stop the presses!

CBS’s 60 Minutes reported May 21 that U.S. defense contractors are “price gouging” the Defense Department.

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