Gaps in European air forces' capacity following Cold War

US F-15E Strike Eagles and Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcons at Ämari.
US F-15E Strike Eagles and Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcons at Ämari. Source: Siim Verner Teder

European countries' air forces that are of critical significance for NATO have lost a part of valuable capabilities needed to deter Russia in the last 30 peaceful years. Credible deterrence largely relies on the Americans.

In an overview published on Wednesday, Justin Bronk, research fellow at U.K. think tank RUSI, points to three deficiencies of European countries and NATO members' air forces. The reason is 30 years of cost-cutting and focusing on the Middle East and not Russia.

Firstly, modern fighters are far more formidable weapons than those used towards the end of the previous century, while they are also much more expensive. There are fewer aircraft and airbases, while concentrated troops are easier to hit with a missile attack.

Hangars are not armored to past standards and air defense, including missile defense, procurements have petered out. Special units tasked with quickly repairing runways after an attack have also been disbanded. Countries like South Korea and Israel hold such capabilities to be key.

Former Estonian Air Force commander Jaak Tarien told ERR that having an air force is expensive, while European air forces have been underfunded for decades. That said, he emphasized that the Ukrainian air force survived the opening blow it was delivered a year ago. "Russia also lacks the capacity to paralyze and effectively defeat European air forces."

Pilots interviewed by Bronk said that their training is suffering. Tarien said that a fighter pilot should get around 100 flight hours annually.

"A flight hour in a modern fighter costs €15,000-50,000, depending on the aircraft. Everyone can do the math in terms of how much it costs a country to keep a pilot on top of their game. I'm sure countries are cutting costs here," Tarien suggested.

To save money, simulators are used, especially in the U.K.

Pilots also say that safety rules are hampering the quality of their training. For example, risky low-altitude maneuvers are not practiced as often as during the Cold War. At the same time, that is the tactic the Ukrainian air force is most relying on.

This is what one German pilot had to say: "Germany's aim is to meet NATO flight hours targets as safely as possible - making sure a fighter pilot is also lethal on the battlefield is not made into a big deal."

Having fewer pilots also means they have more work. Whether paperwork or air policing missions, also over Estonia, which hold little training potential. But Bronk also says that Russian pilots' insufficient training means they cannot make full use of the Russian air force's capabilities.

Tairen gave another example. "I remember from my air defense days, looking east, that pilots had clocked very few hours before the Georgie invasion. Those hours were increased after the Russian air force pretty much failed in Georgia. So there is a direct link between pilots' hours spent in the air and the effectiveness of an air force."

Tarien said that NATO pilots fly more hours.

The average Russian pilot flew 80 hours a year before the war, Bronk suggests. The Russians' poor performance highlights the importance of training and should send alarm bells ringing also in Europe, the researcher stresses.

Thirdly, Europe's ability to combat enemy air defenses is also slumbering. It requires special missiles and bombs, radar jamming aircraft and special skills. For example, this task was performed by the Americans in Libya in 2011 as the Europeans could not have flown without it.

Russia's strength lies in its extensive and quite capable air defense network. The ability to break through it is crucial, also in the defense of Estonia, for NATO to bring its aerial supremacy to bear. Both sides sporting effective air defense for an aerial stalemate, as is happening in Ukraine, would not be to NATO's advantage.

Bronk sees no other solution than filling warehouses with expensive anti-radar missiles virtually the only use of which would be to deter a Russian offensive. Support systems and training aimed at performing this specific task are also important.

European air forces should fill these gaps to offer credible deterrence against Russia in the long run.

However, even with these shortcomings, Europe has the edge in the air, Tarien assured.

"I would not have dared make that statement before the Ukraine war. Now, looking at Ukraine's brave resistance, also in the air, I dare say Europe has the upper hand over Russia off the ground," Tarien remarked.

And not all European air forces are primarily busy with foreign missions. Things are better in Finland and Sweden. They are practicing spacing out their aircraft to avoid strikes against bases, carrying out maintenance off base, as well as landing on roads.

What is more, these gaps are currently filled by Americans. Things would be problematic if China attacked Taiwan and drew much of the Americans' attention away from Europe.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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