Former USAF European Commanders: Let Ukraine Take the Fight to Russia

Bob McConnell
July 8, 2024

Last week, there was an excellent discussion relating to Ukraine – some important history and needed conversation about the situation in Ukraine.

It is difficult to highlight the most important comments because that would depend significantly on your level of knowledge of Putin’s war on Ukraine beginning in 2014.

As for comments about the current situation, I will present two from General Phil Breedlove (Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and member of our Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN).

Breedlove: “We are not giving Ukraine everything they need.”  Rather than a “silver bullet” in the form of F-16s, the Joint Air-to-Surface Missile, or any other particular system, “what they need is the ability to broadly use those tools that we bring to the fight, that are integrated ability to hold Russian targets at risk before the Russian forces can be brought to bear on Ukraine.”

In addition, General Breedlove repeated a sad fact that he and other members of FOUN have made over and over: in war, you are to deter your enemy, not be deterred by the enemy.  Since Putin started this war in 2014, Washington has been deterred by Putin’s threats and bluster. We must stop being deterred.

To listen to the discussion, follow this link – highly recommended:

Former USAF European Commanders: Let Ukraine Take the Fight to Russia

An Air Force F-16 from the 480th Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany

July 3, 2024 | By John A. Tirpak

If Ukraine is to make strides in retaking its territory, the U.S. must stop being deterred by concerns about a broader conflict with Russia, and give the green light to use American weapons that can strike Russian staging areas, former Air Force European commanders said.

“This is bigger than airpower,” retired Gen. Phillip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of U.S. European Command said during an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  

“We are nearly completely deterred right now,” Breedlove said of U.S. reluctance to take actions or provide Ukraine with weapons that could strike inside Russia.

“There are a myriad of options that I think could be considered and used,” he added, including ATACMs and air-delivered weapons that could strike Russian staging areas and air bases in far eastern Ukraine or inside Russia itself.

Basic military doctrine advises: “Seek the initiative and maintain the initiative, and we have blown both of those. We are deterred, and we are reactive,” Breedlove said. “We need to step up, and have the courage to address this.“

The event was to roll out a new paper from the Mitchell Institute, co-authored by retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, and Christopher Bowie, airpower analyst and historian, on the significance of airpower for the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Retired Gen. Tod Wolters, also a former SACEUR and EUCOM commander and retired Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, also participated in the discussion.

Deptula recently returned from a visit to Ukraine, during which he conferred with and advised the country’s military leaders, offered suggestions about steps the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine should take to regain the initiative in the war, the beginnings of which date back to 2014 but devolved into an all-out conflict in 2022.

Wolters pointed out that it takes unanimous agreement on the part of all NATO allies—now numbering 32 members—to take offensive action, or actions that could be perceived as offensive. He said the U.S. is succeeding in making the case with its allies for a more proactive approach in Ukraine.  

“We are in a position, after two years of great coaching in all domains to where we can take advantage of offensive capabilities,” Wolters said. “I believe that we’re getting closer and closer to be able to do that.”

Once momentum is regained by Ukraine, NATO should be “in a position to where, irreversibly, Ukraine becomes a member of NATO in six months [to] two years or three years from now. And those are the kinds of campaign momentum items that we have to be prepared to do,” Wolters said.

“We need to continue to put pressure on it to get those policy shifts to where we can begin to strike targets at range that are critical infrastructure that Russia possesses, that they are using against Ukraine to strike Ukrainian sovereign soil, and those are certainly justifiable targets in anybody’s observation,” he noted.

Wolters also noted that wars can last longer than expected and it is necessary to act now to achieve results down the road.

“You better have a steady, positive military campaign momentum, so that you can be the strategic victor,” he said.

Deptula said the war has devolved to a “ground-centric, attrition-focused grind,” which ultimately favors Russia. To break out of that rut and restore Ukrainian momentum, he offered a number of suggestions, which he said he discussed with Ukrainian officials.

“If Ukraine is to have a shot at victory, then we need to empower them to break out of this stalemate, and that requires effective air power, plus rules of engagement allow them to use it decisively,” Deptula said.

Air superiority “can provide Ukrainian forces the freedom from attack and the freedom to attack that’s absolutely necessary for them to achieve advantages relative to the larger and stronger Russian forces,” Deptula said. Western limits on how Ukraine can use weapons provided to it have given Russian forces “a sanctuary.” Those limits on long-ranged weapons must be “completely removed” he said, and Ukraine freed to attack “any Russian forces, materiel, or infrastructure that could be potentially used against Ukraine.”

To gain air superiority, Ukraine needs to discard its old, Soviet-style methods of using airpower purely to support ground operations.

“Only with the kind of integration that creates a synergy between surface and air operations can Ukraine further its military momentum on the battlefield,” Deptula said.

Ukraine must also be provided with the right weapons “in numbers sufficient to achieve strategic gains in the battlespace,” he said. These include both crewed and uncrewed aircraft, precision weapons, cyber and electronic capabilities, and intelligence and special operations which can all “play a significant role if coordinated in an integrated campaign.”

By integrating low-cost drone use with High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), ATACMS, and cruise missiles, Ukraine can “suppress enemy air defenses. In this way, they can help establish air dominance in times and places of Ukraine’s choosing,” Deptula said.

Harrigian noted, however, that suppression of enemy air defenses is a skill gained through experience and practice and will not materialize quickly for Ukraine.

The F-16s that Ukraine will get from NATO donors “can create effects across a much broader and strategic target set,” Deptula said. They will expand radar detection range, expand threat warning and situational awareness through Link 16 and, along with Mirage 2000s being donated by France, “also deliver heavy weapons in mass that, with their superiority, can disrupt Russian ground forces and pave the way for Ukrainian army progress and breakthroughs.”

Deptula and Bowie’s recipe for success requires the U.S. and NATO no longer deter themselves with “escalation management” and allow Ukraine to shoot ATACMS against Russian air bases that generate sorties against Ukraine.

They also urge greater provision of timely intelligence for Ukraine “to make quick and decisive determinations on when and where to employ its forces to achieve windows of air dominance.” Ukraine must stop treating aviation “as extension of ground forces,” and Deptula urged Ukraine to incorporate air leadership on its general staff “to foster and facilitate integrated, all-domain concepts, planning and employment.”

Breedlove argued that “we are not giving Ukraine everything they need.” Rather than a “silver bullet” in the form of F-16s, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or any other particular system, “what we need is the ability to broadly use those tools that we bring to the to the fight that are an integrated ability to hold Russian targets at risk before the Russian forces can be brought to bear on Ukraine.”

As it now stands, “We have to wait for them to come across the border, except for a couple areas that we’ve authorized, we have to wait for Russia to fire or strike before we respond, and we need to break out of that and use all the tools” in the Air Force’s toolbox and “would hold targets much deeper in Russia at risk.”

Co-Founder, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation
Director of External Affairs, Friends of Ukraine Network
The introductory comments are Mr. McConnell’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN).