The outbreak of the war in Ukraine provoked a NATO response. Despite the fact that the alliance did not engage in direct combat with the Russian Federation, many actions were taken to secure the countries bordering the region of direct threat. Lieutenant-colonel Billie Flynn-retired RCAF Combat Commander and an expert in the field of military strategy told Jan Hernik about his vision of the war in Ukraine, NATO’s response and the strengthening of the Polish air force.
Jan Hernik: Lieutenant Colonel Billie Flynn, welcome to Warsaw Institute. Our guest today is an experienced military pilot who, during his 23-year service for the Royal Canadian Air Force, took part in many combat missions around the world. As we speak, we are on the 231st day of the war in Ukraine. First, I would like to ask you for a general assessment of the course of this conflict with particular emphasis on the role of air combat.
Lt Col. Billie Flynn: First of all, thank you for having me back. I find this topic very interesting. I believe that after 250 days of this war, we are all surprised that it has gone on this long. I think that, at the beginning of the conflict, we underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian defense forces and then, we misunderstood and miscategorized the ability of the Russian forces. As did they. Our assumptions of what was needed for aircover over Ukraine have come and gone. And it is now a different, long-drawn-out war. What I see of late with the barrages of cruise missiles suggests to me that in this new phase, Russia is depleting its war stocks which is not sustainable. No air force, even in the western world has war stocks to launch the kind of salvos that we have seen in the recent past , sustained over time. Russian forces are exhausting their own war stocks, which suggests that their forces are running out of options. When I look at the role of airpower and how it could have changed the war up to this point, and historians will spend a lot of time over the coming years assessing this, there were clearly missed opportunities on the western side, Ukraine’s side. They had the capability to really crush Russian forces in the initial invasion, and then do even more damage. It is a ground war now, not an air war. And what we see in the air is, other than ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and the occasional drone effort, not a sustained air campaign like we would have expected from the West. The capability is not there, and the surface-to-air missile threat even from Russia remains lethal enough that Ukrainian forces have not been able to assemble themselves, repopulate the armament, and fly credible air cover or any kind of air battle that we would imagine in the western world. It’s going to be a long-drawn-out war, and so now I believe that the long game is to look at repopulating the pilot forces in Ukraine, training on different platforms, and, at some point, introducing different aircraft into their military that are not in their use right now. That, by the way, is not an easy task. You do not just show up with introducing F-16s or some other platform to the air force. It will not immediately transform pilots into those trained combat ready fighter pilots ready to go to war. We know, in the military, how long and how hard the training process is to build a warrior. There is no magic to that. It takes a long time to create a seasoned pilot who understands how to fly an aircraft in a high-threat environment and survive. So, this is the long game, and it is time to start working on it.
Jan Hernik: You have mentioned that Russia has potential in terms of armaments because according to the global power ranking, there are 850,000 active personnel, Russian troops, and 250,000 reserve personnel. So, you said that this war is rather a ground war, but would it change, for example, during winter, or possibly spring next year. The ice would melt, and it would lack the mobility of many vehicles on the ground. Would you expect this war to transfer more into airspace or other areas?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: I certainly see the coming of winter grinding both sides down, and it will be particularly hard for the invading forces trying to find comfort. It is going to be as cold as we have it in Canada in the winter months, and it will be beyond miserable for troops on the ground. If morale is low already, just imagine how difficult it will be for those troops when they are not properly fed, are not properly clothed, not properly heated, and they have to live far from home for a long period of time. I mean, if there is discontent already, those winter months are going to make it extraordinarily difficult. And remember, they do not have the same resolve as the Ukrainian forces. They are not defending their homeland. The Russian troops, professional or not, are a long way from home, already in extended deployment, and it is going to be difficult to imagine that they will make impressive advancements in that period. Come springtime, I think we will see something different. Now, does that leave something open for airpower? I still think you cannot fly even over abandoned places with comfort and safety as Ukrainian military aircraft with the ongoing surface-to-air missile threat that Russia has. In that sense, I do not think defenses have been taken down. There is no credible suppression of enemy or defense capability in the Ukrainian military. With no ability to deplete the missile defenses that are on the ground right now, I don’t see much of a change in the air war in that sense.
Jan Hernik: We will also get a chance to discuss the topic of anti-aircraft weapons but let me now move to NATO. Due to the threat, the countries of NATO’s Eastern flank were subject to increased protection from the main members of the Alliance. We are talking here about, for example, the additional relocation of American troops and defense systems to Poland. The official NATO communiqué indicates that since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the airspace of the allied countries of the Eastern flank is being patrolled at any time by as many as thirty combat fighters / patrol jets. And so, it is the Alliance working in this response to Vladimir Putin’s war?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: I think that it is very clear that the NATO deterrence is effective, that Putin understands that he cannot cross past those boundaries and head further west and that any notion of mobilizing beyond Ukrainian borders is probably off the table now. Look, at the beginning of the conflict, NATO forces scrambled to establish themselves, but we are more than 250 days into this war. Everyone understands how to manage the rotations, what kind of personnel are needed, what kind of equipment on the ground, and in the air, and how to manage the patrols. U.S. Defense Secretary Austin was recently yesterday reaffirming the resolve for Article 5 of NATO and the United States’ support in Ukraine. No one would imagine that we, in the West, will lose our resolve to protect our borders, and the border of the NATO countries, and to prevent further incursion into Ukraine where we can help.
Jan Hernik: In October, the topic of Poland joining the NATO nuclear sharing program also appeared. It happened because of the shelling of Ukrainian soil. It was also one of the topics of the talks between President Biden and the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda, but there were no details of this, in this regard. Later, U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Vedant Patel, indicated that the U.S. did not plan to deploy nuclear weapons to any country that joined NATO after 1997. How about this idea of Poland possibly joining the NATO nuclear sharing program? Could it be beneficial for Poland and the entire Eastern flank?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: I certainly think that nuclear sharing in Poland would strengthen the NATO alliance as it fortifies its eastern boundary, which is not what it was historically, right? We have redrawn the boundaries, and NATO is committed to maintaining those. And so, it is plausible to imagine that NATO would or should have nuclear war stocks in Poland. It is very clear in the capability of the Polish defense forces just how accelerated their overall capability has become in the last couple of decades. I am talking about the integration of the F-16 and the incoming F-35, and improvement of defense forces, westernization of the Polish defense. There is a very strong resolve to become an extremely capable military. If we add nuclear sharing on Polish soil as part of that, I see a very westernized stance from Poland and an acceptance overall from other NATO members of Poland’s capability now.
Jan Hernik: Some experts say that Poland, being a part of this nuclear sharing program would turn into some kind of an escalation towards Russia. What do you think about such opinions?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: I think that we are always worried about what the other side thinks. We are always worried about what Putin thinks. At some point, we need to decide whether we are strong enough to protect our alliance, and we do not need to be wary of Putin’s opinion. We have already given him far too much slack over the many years leading up to Ukraine, and at some point, we are worried about our own safety, not what he thinks and what Russia thinks of us. So, do I think it is escalation? No. I think it is increasing our resolve to protect the borders of NATO countries.
Jan Hernik: You mentioned F-35s, the aircraft you know perfectly. You also said that Poland is going to receive some of them, 32 5th-generation F-35s, to be precise. On January 31st, 2020, the Polish Minister of Defense signed a contract for these aircraft for the Polish air force. The arrival of the first aircraft is expected at the turn of 2025 and 2026. I assume that you have spent multiple hours in this jet, so what could you tell our readers about it?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: When we say that the F-35 is transformational, we need to define that better. It changes everything that we understand about airpower and capability in the sky. You can debate how stealthy an aircraft is, but the reality is, it is essentially undetectable when it flies when it chooses to be undetectable. Its ability to gather global, situational awareness when it flies and share it amongst the formation and other aircraft in its data-link network, gives a picture on the ground that is unmatched by any other platform. It is essentially an ISR platform everywhere it flies. So, it flies unencumbered, gathers data, is enormously effective, and is extremely lethal when it flies. It is an astonishing deterrent to Russia. The reality is that NATO has fielded F-35s on the Eastern flank during this conflict, and they fly without being noticed, yet understand everything about the battlespace. When we introduce that aircraft into the Polish air force, it will be a complete change in how fighter jets are used and how the entire defense of Poland is managed. The Polish defense forces are not going to change what the F-35 does, the F-35 is going to change what the Polish military does, integrating air, ground, and sea assets from this point forward. And that is already understood by the Polish Ministry of Defense.
Jan Hernik: I believe that after purchasing F-16s, we understood in Poland that these are the jets that we need – Lockheed-Martin produced American fighter jets. But also in turn, in September of this year, the Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, signed a contract to provide Poland with 48 Korean FA-50 combat aircraft. They are to replace MiG-29s in our military. Many experts spoke about the generational leap in this regard. Are they right?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: What an astonishing capability the FA-50 has. It would be unfair to label it as a mini-F-16, but essentially that is what it is. FA-50 is an enormously capable, now mature, platform seven-and-a-half G, supersonic fighter, and that flies just like an F-16 that is co-developed by Lockheed-Martin and the Korean Aircraft Industries, an enormously capable airplane, flexible, and adaptable in the missions that it can accomplish. It is a huge step forward. It goes further to ensure that the entire Polish air force has been westernized. In Poland, the capability of pilots was hindered by the platform of the MiG-29 and the Soviet-era platforms. Once they are retired and replaced by western designed aircraft, then we have an entire air force, flying at the same level, with the same capability, and the same knowledge of tactics. A homogenized air force will make everyone a significantly more capable, effective, and ultimately lethal force.
Jan Hernik: Do you think that they would be used in a possible battle or are they meant to be training jets? For example, used to prepare future fighters to fly F-16s or F-35.
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: The T-50 was transformed in the TX competition for the United States Air Force next generation trainer. Ultimately Boeing won that competition with the T-7, but the T-50 was shown to be an incredible platform as a training mechanism for future pilots, including fifth-generation pilots. Configuring cockpits that look like an F-35, for example, to get everyone into the mindset of how to manage data, is essentially what we are doing with F-35s. As a training platform, FA-50/T-50 will be an exceptional tool to prepare pilots for fifth-generation capabilities, more than just an aircraft that has great kinematics and is interesting to fly.
Jan Hernik: The last question I have for you would depart a little from the topic of the war in Ukraine. I would like to raise the issue of the Arctic because the importance of this place will increase in direct proportion to the melting times at the North Pole. Recently, the United States announced a new Arctic strategy in which they try to respond to the growing threats of the Russian Federation as well as the People’s Republic of China in this region of the world. The U.S. intends to impose a number of patrols and exercises in this place. Will the permanent U.S. air force base in Keflavik return to Iceland? At the moment, the United States only patrols the airspace in this area. Will there be, in your opinion, any more U.S. or Canadian involvement in the Arctic right now or in the foreseeable future?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: The Arctic has been a significant area of concern for all the Arctic Council nations, if we looked at the North Pole looking down, we would start with Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the United States, and then Russia and China. Russia has, for the past couple of years, refurbished and rejuvenated its bases in the Arctic, including bases that run 365 days of the year, full-on, day and night, all seasons. The recognition is that, under the ice cap, there are natural resources that have never been accessible, yet with global warming, with climate change, are soon to be accessible. That is not just petroleum, it’s rare earth minerals. Russia recognizes that, and by the way, China, a non-Arctic nation, has a significant number of ice-breakers capable of accessing the arctic. Canada has always recognized this but without investing in it. The United States, I think, has finally come to terms with just how valuable Arctic territory is, and the threat that Russia and China are to this area. The reinvestment or rejuvenation of funding by the Canadian military towards NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) modernization, is a key indicator of just how important the Arctic is going to be. And the modernization of NORAD is to be able to deter Russia, and by the way, China from accessing airspace and territory in Canada and the U.S. This is a significant step in that direction. As an example, we now see aircraft deployed to Thule, Greenland, an airbase on the Northwest side of Greenland an airbase that was not used for a long time. Back in the Cold War days, it was a place of strategic utility, and now American and Canadian fighters are again. All of that proves that we, the West, need to protect the Arctic from Russia and China.
Jan Hernik: For the United States primarily, in my opinion, the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan, and the South China Sea are the most important foreign policy matters. Then of course there is war in Ukraine, Central and Eastern Europe, and here, the place of concern also for the United States, where they locate billions of dollars right now to help Ukraine. Then, we are going to have more and more competition in the Arctic region. And many other smaller places where the U.S. is involved, the Middle East also, in a way. I would like to ask you if you think that the U.S. can hold the power in all of these places? Are they militarily capable of holding it in all of them, trade routes, or other strategic tools within their control? Do you think that the U.S. has the capabilities right now to still be “the policeman of the world”?
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: This is a really salient question. How can the United States manage the China threat, the Arctic threat, and the Eastern flank of NATO capability, plus whatever else comes along? In Poland, in Western Europe, in Canada even, the threat seems to be Russia in Ukraine. We are all pointed to the East to recognize that threat. But that is not the existential threat to the United States. To the United States, China is the threat. Russia does not have the capability to truly threaten this country but China does. Against the vast numbers that America would face, fighting a war thousands of miles from home, winning a conflict would be an extremely difficult endeavor. And the more aggressive China gets, the more everyone in the United States military clearly recognizes that China is a growing threat, and at some point, there may be a conflict that nobody wants. They will outnumber us, and we will have to fight a long way from home, which will be extremely difficult, regardless of the enormous capability of the American forces. Fighting a long way from home and being outnumbered does not make that an easy task. Russia and its incursions and its ambitions in the Arctic can be controlled through the Arctic nations. Certainly with the refurbishment and regeneration of the Canadian Armed Forces, Royal Canadian Air Force F-35s, plus the 54 F-35s based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the F-22 Raptors base at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska will be significant deterrents China needs to remain the focus of the American military as the US Air Force builds back up, purchases new fighters, new bombers, new tankers, and rejuvenates itself from the old inventory it has now. And then obviously, there are naval forces that need to be plussed up, to gain the capability to fight a long way from home. Focus on China, less on Ukraine, and less on the Arctic, is really where the United States military has turned its gaze.
Jan Hernik: Yes, this is what introducing the 2011 Pivot to Asia means, for the United States and its foreign policy. Thank you for your time, your expertise on the war in Ukraine, and all the topics we have covered today.
Lt. Col. Billie Flynn: Nice to chat again. Good to see you!
Billie Flynn – He is a former F-35 Lightning II Senior Experimental Test Pilot. Billie Flynn is also a Global Strategic Advisor and Consultant in Advanced Aviation Technologies and Strategies. He is a retired RCAF Combat Commander delivering expertise and insight garnered over 4 decades working at the tactical and strategic levels in the Canadian Armed Forces, the US Air Force, and industry.
Jan Hernik – He is a graduate of the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw. He specializes in the theory of the influence of religion, race, and ethnicity on political choice in the US presidential elections. His research interests also include US activity in the Arctic and Indo-Pacific regions. Currently, he is completing postgraduate studies in geopolitics and geostrategy at the Academy of Applied Sciences and at the Caucasian International University.