Sacrificing Security for Militarism: European Fighter Jet Transfers and the Discourse of World War III
“The immediate cause of World War III is the preparation of it. The indispensable condition for this kind of preparation is the fact of the sovereign state as a continental economic domain. International events are increasingly the result of the decisions and lack of decisions of men who act in the name of these nations and with the means of action made available by their economic, military, and political institutions. The international centralization of decision and the internal development of superstates…mean that history-making is less a matter of some overwhelming fate than the decisions and the defaults of two power elites.”
– C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three, New York, Ballantine Books, 1960: 59-60.
“When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or ten collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralise one another, as would be the case with a cluster of individual passions. There are too few of them, and each is too strong for any neutralisation to take place. Competition exasperates them; they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned.”
– Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties, New York: New York Review Books, 2013: 8-9.
Ukraine’s Security Needs
The Danish, Dutch and Norwegian governments have all approved sending F-16 jet fighters to Ukraine. This transfer has been defended as an appropriate response to Russia’s systematic bombing campaign of Ukraine’s population and infrastructure. In a story published in August, The New York Times explained that Ukraine’s government sought US F-16 fighters to supplement its fleet of Soviet-era jets to increase its “advantage over Russia’s air force and also to improve its own air defenses.” According to the Times, “F-16s would enhance the country’s ground-launched air defenses, which are used to fight off Russian missile attacks and could also act as a deterrent to Moscow in the longer term because they could erase its aerial superiority.” By the end of August, another report explained that “Zelensky had secured promises from a half-dozen countries to either donate the jets — potentially more than 60 — or provide training for pilots and support crew.” James Robbins, a military analyst, in the publication 1945 argues: “adding advanced air capabilities would represent a significant force multiplier.” Such a move “would transform the current status quo – which Ukrainian pilots have likened to flying ‘suicide missions’ against Russian jets – and level the playing field, making the skies over Ukraine safer for Ukrainian fighters and other aircraft by suppressing Russian air defenses.” A report in February of this year explained that Ukraine had lost 53 combat fighters since the start of the war.
David French summarized Ukraine’s military disadvantage as follows: “Generation 4.5 fighters include upgraded models of the American F-15, F-16 and F-18, as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Saab JAS-39 Gripen and France’s Dassault Rafale. Crucially, the list also includes the Russian Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35. Russia has hundreds of generation 4.5 fighters. Ukraine has none. Instead it has a few dozen Soviet-era fourth-generation fighters.” French cited Ukraine’s defense minister as arguing that Ukraine’s planes “have a more limited capacity to provide air defense within the country and no ability to create air superiority at or near the zero line, the very edge of the battlefront.” Currently, “vast areas of the front and most of Ukraine’s civilians and civilian infrastructure remain unacceptably vulnerable to Russian air attack.”
French, who relied on Ukrainian arguments to construct his analysis, replicates a kind of dogmatic thinking. Perhaps in passing, he does note the danger of transferring F-16s while touting the technological advantages: “they also have a much greater capacity to strike Russian forces directly at the front and miles beyond.” Yet, a few sentences later French argues that the plane “does not present a substantial threat to Russia itself.” Rather, the plane “presents a substantial threat only to the Russian invasion” because “it is not a true deep-strike aircraft, like the B-1 Lancer bomber or even the F-15E Strike Eagle.” The problem with French’s arguments is that his view of what constitutes escalation differs from some views in the Pentagon as I will explain below.
The Swedish Response: Do Fighter Jet Transfers Enhance Security?
Sweden represents a test case of whether fighter transfers advance security or militarist opportunism. In some ways, Sweden is the most important case because of the country’s disproportionate fears of Russian threats compared to other nations as I will document below. In February of 2023, a Defense Express story explained barriers to Sweden transferring military planes to Ukraine. Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson argued that Sweden’s security would be diminished by sending fighter planes to Ukraine: “When it comes to Gripen, we are currently facing restrictions since this aircraft is crucial for maintaining our territorial integrity and sovereignty. So this will be a serious obstacle in terms of our national defense resources.” One way to overcome this obstacle would be for Saab to manufacture more planes. The problem, however, is that such production is associated with a lag: “As of 2022, Sweden had 96 active JAS 39C/D Gripen multirole fighters.” There was “an order on manufacture of 60 more jets of the modernized JAS 39E version placed back in January 2013,” but the first such jet was received about seven years later “in December 2019” with the total order supposed to be “fulfilled by 2027.”
A report by Charles Szumski for Euractiv explained how more than three months ago, Sweden’s military leader believed that transfers of Gripen to Ukraine would weaken Sweden’s security. In May of 2023, Jonson said Sweden did not have plans to send jet fights to Ukraine for “national security” reasons. He stated: “The ones we have, we need them to protect Sweden. We do not have a surplus of Gripen aircraft.” He said Russia still had a resilient air force capability: “This has to do with the fact that Russia is now greatly weakened when it comes to ground forces, but when it comes to naval and air forces, they are almost intact. So we have no planes to spare.”
Yet, some Swedish politicians want to send the country’s fighter jets to Ukraine despite such obstacles. A combination of all left parties and some right-wing and center parties approve transfers of Swedish military fighters to Ukraine. Magdalena Andersson, the Social Democratic Party leader, argued last month that: “We can’t let Russia win. Jas Gripen would make a big difference to Ukraine…For Ukraine’s offensive to succeed, its air force must be strengthened.” Another news report cited Peter Hultqvist, the party’s defense spokesperson, as arguing that “Sweden could either give the planes to Ukraine as military aid, sell Ukraine planes, or do a combination of both.” A third news story explained this month that the Liberal Party, Christian Democrats, Center Party, and even the Green and Left parties announced approval for giving JAS fighters to Ukraine. Sweden has only authorized training of Ukrainian pilots on such fighters, however.
An analysis by Swedish Television outlined the various barriers to transferring fighter planes to Sweden. These obstacles include three points. First, Sweden diminishes its security by doing so, particularly before Sweden actually is a member of NATO. Second, training Ukrainian pilots would diminish the capacity or speed in training Sweden’s own future pilots of the Jas Gripen military plane. Third, the Swedish Jas fighter depends on motors and radars supplied by the U.S. and United Kingdom. In essence, a Swedish transfer involves a US and British transfer, but there are risks when the U.S. involves itself in fighter jet transfers, as outlined below.
The Pentagon’s Delaying Tactics and the Cohen Brothers’ Theory of International Relations
Parts of the U.S. military seem averse to sending fighter jets to Ukraine, in contrast to most political parties in Sweden. A story in the European edition of Politico in August of this year quoted United States Air Force General James Hecker as stating that to get “F-16 squadrons ready for battle could take ‘four or five years.’” While Hecker was discussing “top expertise,” the achievement of “basic capability — such as solo air-to-ground attacks” would likely require six months. In contrast, “an American Air Force assessment of two Ukrainian pilots carried out last February, suggested that four months would be a ‘realistic training timeline.’” Some Ukrainians believe that “the long timelines mentioned by some Western officials are a made-up excuse — all part of erring on the side of caution when it comes to giving Ukraine modern weapons systems, stemming from fears of the war widening and Russia retaliating beyond Ukraine.”
The delay is based either on strategic caution about escalation risks or actual logistical and training barriers. Of the latter, the Politico story cited one estimate that it can take “at least to six to seven months to get a pilot up to basic combat standards — and that’s when everything is proceeding smoothly, including no bad weather or aircraft breakdowns disrupting flying hours or trainees encountering hiccups.” A late August report in The Times stated: “American officials have said, only eight Ukrainian pilots are sufficiently fluent in English and experienced in flying combat aircraft to have started training on the F-16s in Denmark.”
In sum, while some in the Pentagon appear to drag their feet in sending military planes to Russia, left parties in Sweden and other European states embrace these shipments despite diminishing their own security either directly (by depleting their air forces) or indirectly by triggering escalation. Essentially we have what might be called the Cohen Brothers’ theory of international relations in which one must “accept the mystery” of two contradictory ideas: military transfer and increased security.
The Dangers of Escalation
Did fears of escalation account for assessments of delays by the U.S. government? First one would have to differentiate between President Biden’s tendencies and those of others in the Pentagon. This becomes evident by analyzing a story in The New York Times by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Vivek Shankar. In May of 2023 Biden approved NATO countries’ training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s. And in August, “a U.S. official said that the United States would allow allies to send the jets.” This led to a commitment by the Netherlands to send “42 jets once Ukrainian pilots and engineers had been trained.” The Dutch move appeared to be coordinated with a Danish commitment to donate 19 F-16s to Ukraine.
While Biden, the Dutch and Danish governments are aligned with the transfers, there is the possibility that such transfers could contribute to serious escalation and risks if military planes are used to attack Russian territory. Returning to the Times account published in August, Russia has accused Ukraine “of launching a series of drone attacks, including one that slightly wounded five people and another that forced airports in Moscow to close briefly.” This attack took place “hours after Mr. Zelensky vowed a military response to a Russian missile strike that killed seven people.” In addition, “Zelensky has suggested in recent weeks that the strikes are part of his government’s strategy.” If drones are used by the Ukrainian government to strike Russian territory, what is to prevent Ukraine from using jets to strike Russia? This fear must have contributed to delays in approving the transfer of such weapons to Ukraine.
One source of legitimating this specific fear, or sentiments aligned with it, comes from none other than Republican Congressman Andy Harris, co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus. A Politico story explains that Harris is part of the Republican movement to speed negotiations and wind down U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine. One of Harris’s fears was “the possibility of starting ‘World War III’ by bringing Ukraine into NATO” as well as the ongoing costs to the United States of the war.
The fear of World War III was expressed by President Biden himself. An article by Steve Nelson, “‘That’s called World War III’: Biden defends decision not to send jets to Ukraine,” in The New York Post tied the fear of such a war to the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine, but apparently the fear was attached to direct U.S. military involvement. In the Post story President Biden vetoed US-facilitated transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine to repel Russia’s invasion, by saying, “that’s called World War III.” What Biden actually said was, “The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what y’all say, that’s called World War III.” Other accounts link the trigger for such a war to NATO shooting down Russian planes. The key trigger for the Biden Administration is linked to NATO engagement. We will see that these distinctions might not amount to much, however.
Trump argued that Biden said that sending tanks to Ukraine would trigger World War III, but omitted Biden linking the trigger of such a war to US troop involvement. Trump did accuse Biden of triggering such a war based on the transfer of cluster bombs in a statement quoted by NBC News in July of this year: “Joe Biden should not be dragging us further toward World War III by sending cluster munitions to Ukraine — he should be trying to END the war and stop the horrific death and destruction being caused by an incompetent administration.”
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Grushko, argued in May that Western countries will create “colossal risks” should they supply F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. This view was not limited to Russia and its own self-serving agenda, but shared with the leadership of the United Kingdom as a story in The Independent explains: “Rishi Sunak’s government has admitted there is a potential risk of escalation as it considers sending fighter jets to Ukraine.” The United Kingdom was not alone, however. A BBC report in May stated that some NATO countries “expressed worries that handing jets to Ukraine would be viewed as escalating the war, risking a direct confrontation with Russia.”
Some military analysts have been clever by inventing a concept that links militarism and solidarity; they have demonized doubt about escallation as a support system for Russian aggression. Amy J. Nelson and Alexander H. Montgomery at the Brookings Institution write that “the West could…recover the initiative and substantially reduce the exploitable perception that it is driven by escalation aversion” by preventing “factionalization.” These writers believe in a homogenization of viewpoints among NATO members: “NATO needs to double down on allied consultations and preserve the outward appearance of NATO as a unitary actor to avoid more amateur hour performances that seek to pass the buck to the U.S.” The authors do not explain the conditions under which NATO nations might have good reasons for disagreement. They argue that public “escalation aversion” can signal “the kind of restraint Putin can exploit by continuing to attack civilians and work his way up the escalatory ladder.”
How Fighter Jet Transfers are Linked to War Escalation and World War III Discourse
There are various ways in which Ukrainian assessments of what triggers World War III (or at least serious escalation) are linked to receipt of advanced weapons systems. This requires synthesizing two statements. First, James Robbins explained how China’s not arming Russia was contingent upon Ukraine not getting fighter jets: “Russia will claim, rightly, that providing advanced aircraft to Ukraine amounts to escalating the conflict. Avoiding escalation was the rationale for the Biden administration blocking Poland from transferring jets at the outbreak of the conflict, reportedly as part of a deal with Beijing to defuse Russia’s nuclear threats.”
Second, a report in Pravda, quotes Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, as stating the following: “If China decides to support Russia with military aid, then World War III is inevitable.” The same quote appears in Levyy Bereg weekly, LB.ua, a Ukrainian publication based in Kyiv.
Despite the disingenuous parsing of Biden’s comments by The New York Post, please note that the Pentagon appears to agree that jet transfers represent dangerous acceleration. The New Voice of Ukraine, in an article published by Yahoo, stated the Pentagon’s earlier objections to fighter transfers as follows: “the transfer of MiG 29 jets to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO.” Thus, (a) jet transfers, lead to (b) an increased possibility of NATO involvement, which (c) according to Biden himself could trigger World War III. Given that F-16 jet fighters are comparable to Mig 29, each with various advantages and disadvantages, it seems safe to say that the earlier assessment of the threat attached to transferring Mig 29s applies to F-16s.
F-16s are not purely defensive weapons and can attack proximate military targets (within 500 miles). Given Russian controlled territory in Crimea and the Russian border itself are a short-distance from Ukraine, French’s arguments about the F-16’s not being “long distance” or somehow less “offensive” seem to beg the question of the often blurry lines between offensive and defensive weapons. For some the F-16 can be classified as offensive. One analyst, Prakash Nanda, says that the F-16’s 500 mile range means that if it took off from Ukrainian air bases it could strike targets well inside Russia. Other weapons given to Ukraine lacked this capacity. Biden would like to make Zelensky “promise that his pilots would not fly the planes across the Russian border,” but Putin might not believe this pledge, potentially creating severe risks.
An article in Euronews stated: “Many experts agree that providing fighter jets could be viewed by Russia as an escalation in the war, with concerns that Ukraine could use the aircraft and missiles to strike within Russia’s territory.” The incremental strategy followed by the Biden can actually lead to less caution about escalation, so incrementalism itself can be very dangerous. Kelly A. Grieco at the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson center argued that “escalation risks are both ‘serious and very real’ and have been managed so far by a strategy of ‘incrementalism’ with Western countries gradually providing more advanced weapons.”
The Euronews article shows why there are problems with using jet fighters in advanced offensive operations. Phil Haun at the U.S. Naval War College argues that “neither Russian nor Ukrainian air forces have been able to effectively operate their fighter aircraft against opposing ground forces.” The limitation is based on Soviet surface-to-air missiles used by Ukraine and Russia that create serious difficulties “for fighter aircraft to perform offensive operations.”
Despite this reservation attached to constraints on fighter jets’ offensive capabilities, escalation can still occur by accident. An analysis by Wyn Bowen, Co-Director of the Freeman Air and Space Institute, argues that “Russia may also consider using low yield nuclear weapons to force an end to the war on its own terms, particularly if its gains from 2014, notably Crimea, are jeopardized.” Bowen points to the danger of “inadvertent escalation” which “occurs when intentional actions in a conflict situation have unintended escalatory effects as they cross a threshold that is important to the other side” and “this threshold may not be obvious or visible.” Bowen raises key questions that Nelson and Montgomery at the Brookings Institution ignore.
Bowen says that one of the greatest dangers of escalation occurs precisely in “the air domain,” which necessarily involves fights among fighter jets or other aircraft. After February 2022, Russian aircraft have been involved in “several incidents” whey they have interacted with and harassed manned and unmanned NATO aircraft which have flown “in proximity to Ukraine on intelligence gathering missions.” In September 2022, The New York Times reportedthat a Russian fighter nearly fired a missile on a British spy plane, but failed because of a technical problem. This incident raised the problem of accidental escalation: “According to two U.S. defense officials, the Russian pilot had misinterpreted what a radar operator on the ground was saying to him and thought he had permission to fire. The pilot, who had locked on the British aircraft, fired, but the missile did not launch properly.” In March 2023, “a Russian warplane knocked into a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea, hitting the drone’s propeller and causing it to crash in international waters.” This “collision was the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war in Ukraine started.”
F-16s under Ukrainian control (outside the NATO orbit) would not trigger this kind of escalation threat, but a dog fight between Ukraine and Russia could spill into territory that belongs to NATO. For example, in November 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian jet that it argued entered its air space. Seven years later, in November 2022, Ukrainian forces fired a missile that entered NATO territory in Poland, with some reports initially suggesting Russian involvement. Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at one point that the missile was “Russian produced.”
The Democratic Party-linked Brookings Institution has tried to critique the dangers of escalation aversion. Nelson and Montgomery argue that this is “a bias in which careful weighing of multiple risks has been abandoned in favor of avoidance of a single worst-case outcome: nuclear war.” While acknowledging nuclear war avoidance as a “crucial goal,” they claimed “this exclusive focus gives the impression of paralysis and cedes the initiative to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” In sum, the teleological goal of defeating Russia can be used to reduce the importance of the nuclear threat (and preparations against choices that increase its probability).
Some parts of the elite media have been more cautious, at least last year. Writing for The Washington Post in March 2022, David Ignatius argued “the United States is rightly wary of a proposal to send the Ukrainians MiG-29 fighter jets — a move that would bring small benefits on the battlefield and entail large risks of a wider war.” The larger problem was that “the Ukraine crisis carried “a genuine risk of direct military conflict between the United States and Russia.” Such a conflict “could escalate into a catastrophic nuclear confrontation.” Therefore, he wrote that “the West needs cool heads, not hot ones, to successfully navigate what could become the most dangerous nuclear standoff in history — riskier even than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, because it is taking place against the backdrop of a hot shooting war.” Ignatius was then echoing the Biden Administration stance which even included a communication from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Polish government that the U.S. did “not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air force at this time.” U.S. policy changed, but not with equal enthusiasm in certain Pentagon quarters.
When Self-Defense leads to Threat Acceleration and “Solidarity Means Perpetuating War”
While Trump and some key Republicans say advanced weapons transfers are linked to World War III, regardless of what they actually think, leading Ukrainians believe that this threat is irrelevant, at least claiming that it is so. Danilov argued in September of this year, that “the Third World War has already begun with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” according to a report published in The Brussels Signal. The occasion was a special Kyiv Security Forum event on September 5th. This story cites Danilov as arguing “that many international commentators had made the ‘mistake’ of thinking the Ukraine war was an isolated incident.” The report quotes Danilov as saying, “people who think that the Third World War has not started—they make a big mistake.” Danilov has also argued that “the world needs to prepare for the disintegration of Russia.”
The alternative to war and escalation involves negotiations and territorial concessions. Yet, this option is opposed by militarist leaders in NATO and Ukrainian elites according to news reports this month. After Stian Jenssen, the chief of staff to NATO’s general secretary, argued that a solution to ending the war “could be for Ukraine to give up territory and get NATO membership in return,” these “remarks provoked an angry condemnation from the Ukrainians; a clarification from his boss, Jens Stoltenberg…and ultimately an apology.”
In a statement published in January of this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock forward, at “90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” The clock is an indicator for the risks of nuclear war. The reason was “largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.” This statement linked the danger to “profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.” The statement laid most of the blame on Russia, offered no narrative about NATO’s eastward expansion and the dangers related to that, but did call out for “the US government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine” to utilize “multitude of channels for dialogue.” Escalation, they argued, could be reduced by “finding a path to serious peace negotiations.” Peace without concessions seems unlikely, but concessions have been demonized.
The Limits to Political Parties and War: Managerial Expansion versus Fragmentation
Generally speaking, military managerialist expansion has driven this war. This occurs because of economic and political institutions as C. Wright Mills argued. Economically, the defense stocks of Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and Saab have increased by 25.99%, 63.74%, 54.64% respectively over the last five years. Politically, even left political parties have increasingly proven weaker in combatting militarism and even embrace it. Economic and political capital accumulation are both tied to war promotion, although in the U.S. case Republicans and some on the left support negotiations to quickly end the war (most likely through concessions on land). We have seen that Europeans follow the lead of the U.S. in their policies on advanced fighter sales.
In the forthcoming US national election (November 2024), growing opposition to arms transfers to Ukraine are one potential barrier to the West’s perpetuating the conflict. In a CNN poll published in August, 55% said “the US Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine” opposed by 45% who said “Congress should authorize such funding.” While 51% said “that the US has already done enough to help Ukraine,” 48% said “it should do more.” The Atlantic Council, a key cheerleader of the war effort, told a different story. They report on a Reagan Foundation poll this summer in which 59% of respondents supported military aid to Ukraine (75 percent of Democrats; 50 percent of Republicans) with half saying that “US aid so far had been worth the cost (65 percent of Democrats; 41 percent of Republicans).” A Gallup poll in June found that 62% of Americans supported “the effort in helping Ukraine regain all of its lost territory, even if that means a more prolonged conflict.” The poll showed that both Republicans and Independents were more likely to oppose military aid or a slow end to the war. A Pew Research poll in June showed growing numbers of Republicans (or Republican-leading) and Democrats (or Democrat-leaning) voters believing that too much aid was given to help Ukraine.
The divisions in the United States are echoed in Europe: “According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, 64% of Europeans agree with purchasing and supplying military equipment to Ukraine with Sweden (93%), Portugal (90%) and Denmark (89%) having the highest approval rates. On the other hand, Bulgaria (30%), Cyprus (36%) and Slovakia (37%) have the lowest approval rates.” The turn of Sweden’s left parties to embrace the war can easily be understood by two reference points.
First, Sweden is by some indicators the European Union nation most supportive of logic supporting the war. According to a May-June 2023 poll by Eurobarometer, 79% of Swedes polled agreed with the statement that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a threat to the security of the EU. In contrast, only 23% of Bulgarians, 26% of Greeks, 27% of Slovakians and Austrians, and 32% of Hungarians had this view. For Finland the proportion was 61% and in Denmark 67%. Even Lithuania’s 58% was far lower than Sweden’s share. The EU average was 41%. When it came to the question of whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a threat to one’s country, Lithuania was highest with 62% agreeing, with Sweden not far behind (second place) at 58%. The EU 27 average was only 37%, however.
Second, most political parties are designed to be indifferent to truth. In her essay, “On the Abolition of All Political Parties,” Simone Weil argued that political parties could not support “truth, justice and the public interest” because of three essential characteristics. First, “a political party is a machine to generate collective passions.” Second, “a political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.” Third, “the first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.” Given the limits to political power identified by Seymour Melman and product differentiation of political parties, a consensus will likely emerge to oppose the continuation of the war. One can only hope that this occurs sooner rather than later.
Jonathan Michael Feldman specializes in research related to political economy, disarmament, green economics and studies related to democracy. He writes periodically for Counterpunch and Portside. He is an associate professor at The Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University.
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