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Jun 19, 2024 (0)

From almost the beginning of Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine, some experts and commentators have argued that Ukraine's battle to defend itself or retake lost territory is hopeless and that negotiations and concessions are its only hope.

In "Ukraine's Implausible Theories of Victory, The Fantasy of Russian Defeat and the Case for Diplomacy", Barry R. Posen concluded in the July 8, 2022 Foreign Affairs: "The Ukrainian and Western theories of victory have been built on weak reasoning. At best, they are a costly avenue to a painful stalemate that leaves much Ukrainian territory in Russian hands. If this is the best that can be hoped for after additional months or years of fighting, then there is only one responsible thing to do: seek a diplomatic end to the war now."

And, it must be admitted, "painful stalemate" might be the best way to summarize the almost two years of fighting since.  Why then have negotiations not advanced? Likely because both sides still have optimistic views of the outcome, despite the stalemate, due to the looming uncertainty of US and Western support for Ukraine. Ukraine hopes that continued or increased Western aid will allow it to prevail. Russia is counting on the West tiring of supporting Ukraine.

The 2023 Rand report, Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,  summarized the latter view: "As former President and current deputy chair of the Russian Security Council Dmitri Medvedev put it, 'America always abandons its friends and its best [proxies]. It will happen sooner or later this time too.' Once it is inevitably deprived of its Western lifeline, Ukraine, according to Moscow, will be unable to prevail against the Russian military."

The same Rand report references the historical example of 'mutual optimism' as a barrier to peace negotiations in the case of World War I, largely stalemated in 1917, but dragging on for two more bloody years because each side had a cause for optimism: the Germans that peace with Russia in the east would free up the forces they needed to win  in the west, the English and French that America would enter the war.  

Though the current 'mutual optimism' bloody stalemate in Ukraine does seem sadly parallel to the carnage of World War I, another historical comparison, this one to World War II, is also telling, but perhaps not in the way the author intended.

Posen compares Ukraine's 'Fantasy of Russian Defeat' to the German's failed Battle of the Bulge toward the end of World War II: "In December 1944, the Germans surprised the Allies in the Ardennes Forest with a concentration of mechanized and infantry divisions against a thinly defended 50-mile stretch of front...  Although the Germans were able to achieve surprise and enjoyed a few days of success, the operation soon foundered."

Oddly, that historical example provides the answer to the rhetorical quandary Posen had posed just before citing it: "In the case of Ukraine, it is not obvious what special technology the West possesses that would so advantage the Ukrainian military that it could crack Russian defenses."

That would be called an Air Force.

Germany at the time of the Battle of the Bulge no longer had one of those, at least not of any significance. Destroying the Luftwaffe, its fuel supplies and transportation support networks had been a primary task, really a prerequisite, for the US Eighth Army Air Forces to complete before the D-Day invasion of June 1944. Even the vestigial Luftwaffe's last ditch effort, Hitler's "Great Blow", catching 450 Allied planes on ground, cost it 400 planes, "the greatest single catastrophe the Luftwaffe would suffer," according to Masters of the Air author Donald S. Miller. German fighter chief Adolph Galland said "'In this forced action we sacrificed our last substance.'" (p. 374)

As  Eisenhower had reassured his troops on the eve of the D-Day invasion, "'If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours'... The infantry battle..." Miller writes, "would not be won for another seven weeks, but command of the sky had already been secured in six weeks of withering aerial combat." (Masters, p. 259). That operation had begun in February 1944, with the aim of "nothing less than the annihilation of the Luftwaffe." (Masters, p. 254)

Out of necessity, not preference, Germany developed a new "anti-air-power doctrine.  Simply stated... that soldiers could fight a strong defensive battle even without air power, even though in the end, many would die, and the battle would be lost. Similar circumstances would force Japan to adopt the same bloody doctrine on its road to defeat. (The Influence of Air Power Upon History, Walter J Boyne, p. 291)

What Germany and Japan fatally lost in battle, Ukraine never really had: an air force capable of defending its country. Posen turned out to be prophetic when the Ukraine counteroffensive fizzled in 2023, and for much the same reason as the Battle of the Bulge failed for the Germans:  no air force. That anyone expected Ukraine to fight without this essential element is appalling, a modern version of a "bloody doctrine... on the road to defeat."

As Giulio Douhet (1869-1930, pioneer of Italian air power, a fascist, but not wrong about this) put it: "To have command of the air means...  complete protection of one's own country, the efficient operation of one's army and navy, and peace of mind to live and work in safety. In short, it means to be in a position to win. To be defeated in the air, on the other hand, is finally to be defeated and to be at the mercy of the enemy, with no chance at all of defending oneself, compelled to accept whatever terms he sees fit to dictate. " (Boyne, p. 139)

Though Douhet and Billy Mitchell, the famous American advocate of air power, were mostly wrong about the type of air power that would be decisive—thinking  bombing alone would be decisive, not yet realizing that the first job of a nation's air force would be defeating the enemy's—they were essentially right about the life-and-death importance of air power in defense of one's country.  As a 2020 study,  Air superiority and battlefield victory by Richard Saunders and Mark Souva found, "Approximately 79% of all decisive battle winners had air superiority... Air superiority explained war outcomes better than a general measure of military power... At least on the modern battlefield, air superiority and not power in general is the key to victory." ( that achieve air superiority,superiority lose the decisive battle)

Expecting Ukrainian soldiers to go up against entrenched modern enemy defenses without air support is absurd—encouraging them to do so, or tacitly requiring it by withholding or limiting aid if they fail to make progress under such impossible conditions, is cruel, immoral and borders on criminal.

Even now, as Dutch F-16s may, hopefully, soon be arriving in Ukraine, reports such as Al Jazeera's "Will long-awaited F-16 fighter jets boost Ukraine's push against Russia? ...analysts say they are unlikely to be a game-changer" show that neither the press nor Western policy makers really understand what is required to truly help Ukraine defend its country. The article reports that a dozen F-16s will be arriving within a few weeks, and, for their protection, only one or two will be stationed on Ukrainian soil, as they are too "precious" to risk. Eighty-five total will be provided by the Netherlands and other European countries .

That's nowhere near enough. Like air power advocates from the earliest days of flight right up through most of World War II, military planners often expect planes to be some kind of miracle weapon, defeating the enemy with the latest high tech alone, not realizing the immense scale, and often tremendous losses, required to defeat a determined enemy.

When the US Army Air Force finally figured out what would be required to destroy the Luftwaffe before D-Day: 200 planes— were expected to be lost . The previous plan expected the loss of up to 2/3 of the crews — 7,000 men. The final attack force was over 1000 bombers and 900 fighters, and actual losses were less than expected due to better fighter protection for the bombers.(Masters, p. 255,6)

The bloody calculus that went into planning that mission was dictated by the hard experience of the war for American flyers in Europe, where, as Miller summarizes it, "Two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured... By the end of the war, the Eighth Air Force [based in the UK] would have more casualites—26,000—than the entire United States Marine Corps. Seventy-seven percent of the Americans who flew against the Reich before D-Day would wind up as casualties. (Masters, p. 7)

It turned out that what military people call "mass"—"the application of overwhelming force" (Masters,  p. 255) and its concurrent casualties, was, tragically, as necessary and unavoidable for air war as it was for Grant defeating Lee in the Civil War. The technology had changed, the scale and brutality had not.

The $170,000 Russian bounty offered for the first F-16 destroyed in Ukraine, according the Al Jazeera article, and the "precious" status of the planes to the Ukrainians, show both sides understand the symbolic value of the F-16s.  

For Ukraine to prevail— whether by force of arms or, preferably and more peacefully with a credible deterrent at the negotiating table— its air force will need to be empowered beyond symbolic gestures, and at a scale and with a grim determination that the painful history of dealing with aggressive and militant dictators shows is the only way to credibly deter, and if necessary stop, their efforts to subjugate free peoples to their ruthless ambitions.


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