Maybe Ukraine Doesn't Need A NATO No-Fly Zone Because They Already Have One?
Shhh, it would be top secret
The USS Harry S. Truman is operating in the Adriatic. The ship’s Twitter account recently posted this photo of a powerful new E-2D Hawkeye. These planes have the range to make a round trip from the ship’s catapults to Kyiv. With some NATO refueling aircraft and secure strips in Romania or Poland in case of emergency, one US Navy carrier can keep a small constellation of these planes aloft over Ukraine 24/7.
Although they operate at a standoff distance, well away from harm, the Hawkeyes can still “see” over the borders into Russia and Belarus. Keep this in mind, because it is what makes this perhaps the most powerful warplane you know nothing about. It is like a superpower. Just one of these airplanes can potentially destroy whole Russian air regiments.
Russia’s fancy new S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are designed to hit aircraft hundreds of miles away. However, they have failed to get that far into Ukraine from outside it, forcing Russian AAA units to advance into hostile territory where they can be destroyed. Perhaps the skies over Kyiv remain relatively safe for ghost pilots because nothing can enter Ukrainian airspace unobserved?
Or maybe it is a pure coincidence that Hawkeye aircrews can watch Russian antiaircraft control radars and detect the SAMs launching. The missile’s homing radar is subject to jamming, but never mind that. Ukraine has successfully intercepted some incoming ballistic missiles, a much easier accomplishment if provided with early warning from the time of launch. But still, let us remain skeptical.
Russian planes have also failed to control the skies over Ukraine and continue to suffer losses. Hawkeye radars are capable of tracking them from takeoff and sharing that information with Ukrainian air defense. Even better, airborne electronic weaponeers can jam a Russian pilot’s communications and passive radar threat warning systems — while at the same time a friendly ghost pilot is vectored to intercept, preferably right up the intruder’s blind spot for an easy missile kill. Lather, rinse, repeat. Could this be how aces are made in the 21st Century? Who knows. Who could ever know.
Airborne infantry operations are especially vulnerable to defenders with early warning. Ukraine has destroyed Russian transport planes on the way to their drop zones, still full of hapless paratroopers, and defeated Russian assaults at key air facilities with rapid counterattacks. A Hawkeye in the air completely explains all of this, but let’s just chalk it all up to coincidence.
Russia’s performance in the Ukrainian sky is desultory at best. Even average folks around the world can’t help but notice it. Until shelling and rocket strikes hit civilian areas this week, some silly people had even convinced themselves that this relative lack of bombing cities from the air was a sign of Putin’s humanitarianism. LOL, as the kids say.
Occam’s razor points instead to western, and specifically American, electronic warfare platforms like the Hawkeye. Invisible by design, they are supremely stealthy assets because no one looks at them twice. No missiles? No guns? Whatever!
The first rule of winning wars is that you never give a sucker an even break. Western airborne electronic warfare capabilities still overwhelm Russian with laughable ease despite all the Kremlin sales copy about next-generation technologies. Clearly, Putin’s generals did not plan for an American intervention like this, but they should have. Add it to the list of their failures. Maybe. Who knows?
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for an official no-fly zone this week, pounding the table and airing his disappointment when NATO declined. This was performance by a professional performer whose intentions are political. He made a maximum demand to get the most advantage possible. I don’t think Zelenskyy actually expected an official NATO no-fly zone to ever fly, though he probably hoped it might take wing.
Nor does Ukraine really need an official no-fly zone — as long as a very effective, goddamn deadly, yet unofficial electromagnetic no-fly zone already exists over most of the country already, right now.
Open source analysts say that reinforcements arrive by the hour. Russian pilots flew over Korea and Vietnam; they used to fly almost all of Libya’s air force, and still fly much of Syria’s. Now the favor is being returned as foreign pilots stream into Ukraine to take up the fight. (It’s a tradition going back to the Flying Tigers, but that’s for another post.) Former Warsaw Pact states that are now part of the Atlantic treaty system are sending airplanes that Ukrainians already know how to fly.
Criticize Biden, the United States, and NATO if you wish. The consensus remains that Ukraine does not need too much help, or the kind of help that might enlarge the conflict. Ukraine benefits most from help doing the things they can’t do for themselves — like airborne early warning, command and control, loitering operations, and so on — that America and their Atlantic alliance partners are very good at. Radio energy is a supreme force multiplier that leaves no physical trace evidence to empower Russian escalations.
It is a perfect way to intervene against Putin without touching Russians, it leverages inexpensive assets to their best potential, and best of all it leaves Ukraine with full credit for their own brave defense.
As I keep saying, cold war is performative, and that is never more true than when a cold war starts heating up at the margins. Aircrews flying secret missions expect no public acknowledgement from their own governments. The full extent of America’s electromagnetic role in Ukraine will probably never be explained to us in full, so its representation will be distorted in historiography and popular culture. This is one price of being an “Old Crow,” or electronic warrior. You get a cool job, use cool stuff, and get cool opportunities — but then you have to be cool about it for the rest of your life while some ghost fighter jock hogs all the glory on Instagram.