WORLD FOCUS: Top US general assesses the Ukraine war
I asked Gen. John Michael Loh, now living in Williamsburg, what difference it would make to introduce F-16 fighter-bombers in the war in Ukraine.
Loh is a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force whose assignments included being vice chief of staff of the Air Force, the second highest ranking position. He was then selected and confirmed to be the first commander of Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley Air Force Base. His command included more than 3.400 aircraft and 174,000 active military and civilian personnel.
Loh was a command pilot with more than 4,300 flying hours. He flew 204 combat missions in Vietnam.
There is hardly a more competent military expert than Loh to answer the question what difference it would make in the war if Ukraine was provided with F-16 fighter-bombers.
“The introduction of the F-16 would make a dramatic difference in favor of Ukraine,” he said. “The strengths and advantages air power brings to a military campaign have been noticeably absent in this war. F-16 in large numbers would tilt the balance greatly.”
Loh explained that until now, Ukraine has fought a defensive war trying to stop and reverse Russian attacks and attempting to intercept Russian missiles indiscriminately targeting Kyiv with mostly negative results. Limited ground operations result in only brief, small gains. Air power, led by F-16s, would make a big difference.
“F-16s will allow Ukraine to go on offensive” he said. “They will be able to attack military targets across a wide swath and go deep to attack targets unreachable by surface-based missiles. Without the offensive firepower of F-16s, Ukraine will be unable to turn the tide in its favor.”
I asked the general what makes F16s so special.
“Among all available NATO fighters, the F-16 is the best fighter plane for Ukraine,” Loh said. “The F-16 is relatively easy to both fly and employ air-to-air missiles and a wide array of air-to-ground weapons. It is recognized worldwide as a flexible, agile fighter in the air forces of over 30 nations. It has been in continuous production since 1974 with a vast logistic system supporting global operations.”
As a former fighter pilot, Loh is able to evaluate the advantage of air power in warfare. He pointed out, the F-16 ability to range far and wide over and beyond battlefields to attack targets sets as different as close support for troops in direct contact with the enemy to targets deep in enemy territory such as airfields, missile launch sites, supply depots, marshaling sites and command centers.
“Without the air power the F-16 provides, the Ukraine military is unable to get on the offensive and take the fight to the enemy where it hurts,” he said.
Loh has followed the war in Ukraine with an eye on the strategy of the Ukrainian High Command.
“I can only summarize that the military strategy of the Ukrainian High Command is to minimize the impact of Russian missile attacks in and near Kyiv with U.S.-supplied air defense missiles and attempts to defeat the Russians with a ground-only counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine. Without air power, neither strategy will work,” he said.
Loh is known as a student of history. I asked him, in his view, what would be the significance of Putin’s victory in Ukraine.
“The significance of a Putin victory would be the first step of his grand plane to restore the Soviet era empire by going farther, into Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Balkans,” he said. “Putin’s thinly veiled goal should provide the incentive for NATO to increase its commitments to Ukraine, and for the U.S. to increase our presence with Army and Air Force deployment to eastern Europe, and Naval deployments to the North and Baltic seas.”
Finally, I asked Loh if he would still be on active duty, what would be his advice to President Biden, on policy regarding the war in Ukraine.
“Although late to need, the commander in chief needs to order the training of Ukrainian pilots and maintenancers immediately at warp speed and send a large fleet of F-16s and associated support equipment to Ukraine,” he said.
“On broader policy question, I would strongly suggest that the president reorder and strengthen the policy regarding fear of Russian escalation. He resists providing Ukraine with offensive weapons that would attack targets in Russia for fear Putin would retaliate with nuclear weapons. The result is the quagmire we have today. We provide weapons sufficient for Ukraine to avoid defeat, but insufficient for them to win in any meaningful way. This is a no-win strategy with no end in sight.”
The U.S., according to Loh, is failing the basic test of deterrence strategy.
“Because of the fear of Russian escalation to expand the war beyond Ukraine and with possibility of nuclear weapons, Putin is deterring us,” he said. “We are not deterring Putin. The essence of enforcing deterrence is to demonstrate both the capacity and the will to force an advisory to limit aggression for fear that we will destroy his ability to wage war.”
Expressing deep concern, Loh noted that President Biden already played his hand by telling Putin he will not enforce deterrence in the traditional sense. Thus, Putin has no reason to limit his aggression. Loh feels, it is a major breakdown in American deterrence policy.
(Frank Shatz is a former resident of Lake Placid and a current resident of Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his columns. This column is used with permission by the Virginia Gazette.)