On 20 December 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the first American pilots tangled with Japanese bombers over the skies of Kunming, China. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Claire Chennault and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, three squadrons of flyers and maintainers served in the American Volunteer Group (AVG) as a mercenary component of the Chinese Air Force. The famed “Flying Tigers,” originally comprising 100 P-40 Warhawks and 100 pilots, flew combat missions against the Japanese invasion forces in China and Burma from late 1941 to mid-1942 and are credited with 296 enemy aircraft destroyed in slightly more than six months of combat.
With the Russian invasion in Ukraine consolidating and regrouping in Ukraine’s east, the time has come to resurrect this hallowed unit, rebuilt for the modern age. In the weeks since the invasion began on 24 February, the United States and NATO have steadily increased their response from economic sanctions and other deterrence-oriented measures to lend-lease supply of arms to Ukrainian forces, particularly antitank weapons. The defenders have summoned a stiff and willful resistance, and the Russian assault—plagued by logistical and doctrinal shortcomings—stalled significantly in its first month. But it is not unreasonable to question how long the world’s 23rd-largest military force can feasibly hold off the predations of the 5th largest or to wonder how hard a floundering Vladimir Putin might push to save face by securing victory—perhaps with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.
The United States needs to act to prevent future Russian incursions into nonaligned states such as Moldova, Finland, and Sweden and to assure NATO members such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania they will not be abandoned—as well as to demonstrate to China that a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan will not be tolerated. But enforcing a NATO “no-fly zone” or sending in Western troops across the Polish border would certainly draw the ire of Russia and likely lead to a no-win situation of direct conflict. However, a small but skilled proxy force of mercenary pilots and aircraft could be the exact tool Ukraine needs to break the stalemate, prevent greater losses, and drive the Russians back across the border without dragging the world into another global war.
Corporate Structure and Protections
Given the diplomatic sensitivity of such a mission, the AVG must fall outside the purview of the U.S. government, operating under tacit permission rather than direct sponsorship. The best way for the government to build distance between itself and the unit would be to outsource combat to an existing private military company (PMC) such as Academi or Dyncorp/Amentum or a “red air” contractor such as Draken, Textron Airborne Solutions (which owns ATAC), Tactical Air Support (TacAir), Top Aces, Air USA, or “Blue Air Training.” The Chinese-based, but U.S. privately-owned Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) filled this role for the original AVG, serving as an intermediary between Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and U.S. interests in the months before Pearl Harbor.
The best-use case would involve the AVG being formed as a joint-venture subsidiary of multiple corporations offering the widest access to airframes, parts, pilots, and maintainers to form the most effective fighting unit. The company could receive financing from a combination of the Ukrainian treasury, off-the-books U.S./NATO funding, crowd-sourced and corporate fundraising efforts, a stock initial public offering (IPO), angel investors who have voiced pro-Ukrainian sentiment, or even with a contractual (“spoils of war”) clause offering the company rights to some predetermined portion of the value of captured Russian materiel.
The parent corporation must be both large and wealthy enough to retain at least some independence from the Ukrainian Air Force and Foreign Legion, filling a clearly defined role as a contractor to customers. The company should prioritize defending the interests of its employees and aircraft, operating to U.S. standards and not allowing its resources to be unnecessarily squandered.
The relationship between Ukraine and the AVG must be clearly defined at the start and great effort should be expended in establishing a suitable liaison cadre to keep things running smoothly. AVG employees would be contractors who are not members of any military and who would not take orders directly from Ukrainian commanders. Though by definition, these airmen will undoubtedly face danger, it would be unacceptable for them to be haphazardly ordered into a situation of unacceptable risk, whether that means flying poorly maintained airplanes, facing severe weather, or going into combat with inadequate numbers or weaponry.
Even if the U.S. government would bear no formal responsibility for the AVG or its actions, at the end of the unit’s service and in the case of those missing or captured, the United States cannot abandon its citizens to the Russians. The United States also should ensure that the existing veterans’ benefits of AVG members would be protected back home and that they would receive no bureaucratic retaliation for their service as contractors in Ukraine.
In addition to veterans and contractors already working within the existing framework of the PMCs, the AVG could target active-duty or reserve aircrew and maintainers (or those recently separated) experienced in the proposed type/model/series that would be sent into Ukraine. This process would require flexibility on the part of the U.S. government, allowing leniency on enlistments and remaining time on contracts, as well as allowances for AVG members to return to uniformed service at their previous pay grade or higher following the conclusion of the Ukrainian service, if so desired.
It is tempting to imagine an all-star team of possible airframes free from budgetary, acquisition, or manning constraints or without regard for diplomatic consequences. But the reality as it currently stands is that the United States cannot deploy an expeditionary air wing of F-35s, F-22s, A-10s, E-3s, C-17s, KC-130s, UH-60s across ten different squadrons. Even if Western fifth-generation fighters could somehow be fielded in this fight, it would be foolhardy and against U.S. interests to expose their capabilities at this time.
Just as the original volunteers flew U.S.-designed P-40 Warhawks sold under foreign license, assembled in the CAMCO factory in Rangoon, Burma, modern diplomatic interests would be best served if the AVG did not fly aircraft supplied directly from the active U.S. government inventory. Fortunately, red air contractors already possess a carefully curated treasure-trove of warbirds from which an AVG could be assembled.
ATAC owns a fleet of more than 90 aircraft, including the Mirage F1, F-21 Kfir, Mk 58 Hawker Hunter, and L-39 Albatross. The JTAC/FAC focused contractor “Blue Air Training” possesses seven OV-10D+/G Broncos, eight A-90 Raiders, six PC-9A/F Pilatuses, and a fleet of BAC 167 Strikemasters and IAR 823 Brasovs. Tac-Air operates the Embraer EMB 312F Tucano (A-27), Canadair CF-5D, Siai-Marchetti SF-260TP, Su-27, and A-29 Super Tucano. Draken owns a “dozen ex-South African Atlas Cheetahs, and 22 ex-Spanish Air Force Mirage F1Ms plus assorted other subsonic jets . . . A-4 Skyhawks, L-159 Honey Badgers, L-39s, and MB339s . . . as well as a deep backstock of MiG-21s.” Top Aces operates the Bombardier Learjet 35A, Dornier Alpha Jet, and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
Admittedly, the above aircraft are not the most cutting edge and are primarily light attack airframes past their heyday. But with the right armament and, more important, air superiority achieved by more capable platforms, some combination of these old warbirds could supplement the Ukrainian air defense and take the fight to targets of opportunity, such as the 40-mile Russian convoy that was stalled for weeks outside of Kyiv.
Draken, Top Aces, Air USA, and Tac-Air boast the best potential for fourth-generation fighters that could help establish an AVG-enforced no-fly zone. Draken owns 24 former Norwegian and Dutch F-16s. Top Aces operates 29 ex-Israeli F-16A/Bs. Air USA recently acquired 46 Australian F/A-18A/B Hornets that supplement its healthy attack and command-and-control fleet, which includes the L-39, BAE Hawk Mk.67, Cessna 0-2/C-337 Skymaster.
Tac-Air flies an unspecified number of F-16Cs as well as 25 F-5 Advanced Tigers upgraded with heads-up displays and hands-on-throttle-and-stick controls, “open architecture mission computers and tailored operational flight programs that enable integration of advanced radar and [radar-warning receiver] systems, [infrared search-and-track systems], [electronic attack], datalinks,” and so on. It refers to the Advanced Tigers as a “4th generation adversary platform with 3rd generation economy.”
Though it is understandable that the United States could not offer up active warplanes to the AVG on a silver platter, it would be immensely helpful to the war effort if the unit was afforded the benefit of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base “Boneyard” in Arizona. Conducting under-the-table “kid in the cookie jar” raids for spare parts or even (in the most wishful of thinking) spare birds would be a game-changer for the unit’s supply lines.
Ultimately, U.S. service members and veterans are if nothing adaptable, and though they would be most efficient working in their native platforms, they could be trained to operate foreign equipment such as widely used MiG-29s. Training AVG airmen on new equipment would waste precious time and dollars that a counter-invasion force does not have to spare, but it would be a preferable option to not sending any force at all.
Because of its nature as a self-contained, lean, organic fighting force that must be flexibly suited to a variety of missions as a jack-of-all-trades, the AVG should be modeled loosely after a U.S. Navy carrier air wing. Eventually, the unit could be scaled to multiple self-contained air wings operating in different theaters across Ukraine, but it would be more realistic to start with just one air wing as a proof of concept in the primed-to-heat up Donbas region.
Though they will ultimately be limited simply by what they can get their hands on in a pinch, ideally, AVG platforms should be capable of short-field takeoffs and landings as much as possible to mitigate potential runway constraints and battle damage. Airframe durability, ease of maintenance, cost of acquisition, and cost per flight hour are also crucial planning factors.
Last, the unit should seek to field the minimum number of unique platforms to cover tasked missions. The AVG air wing should be composed of two fighter squadrons of 8 to 12 F-16s; one fighter/attack squadron composed of 12 F/A-18s; two light-attack squadrons composed of some combination of 8 to 12 A-4s, OV-10s, and A-29s; one electronic-warfare squadron using whatever off-the-shelf technology manufacturers can supply on any of the existing fast jets in the Top Ace inventory (which prides itself on its EW application); one airborne early warning/command and control (AEWC2) squadron composed of three or four larger commercial jets with mounted radar systems (based on the E-3 Sentry or E-7 Wedgetail); two rotary combat search and rescue (CSAR) squadrons using any common medevac helicopter; and one transport squadron using C-130s.
The CSAR squadrons could potentially be eliminated in favor of outsourcing those services to native Ukrainian units, and a dedicated heavy transport squadron could be exchanged for a fleet of C-12s (such the one currently maintained by L3.)
Integration of a variety of aircraft from different services, countries, and eras into one air wing does raise the question of in-flight refueling. Smaller Air Force jets typically use the boom model of tanking that requires the corresponding equipment on a big wing tanker. Because of their expeditionary nature, Department of the Navy aircraft tend to use drogue tanking, which, with external fuel tanks, allows jets to be both tankers and receivers.
Contract big-wing tanking, such as Omega Aerial Refueling, would be the most efficient operation to ensure all players are able to get gas, but large, heavy tankers would be expensive to procure up front and very vulnerable to Russian attack. Buddy tanking allows for greater maneuverability and flexibility but would require every customer to carry probe and basket equipment (or be modified to do so.) The decision could be made to abandon organic tanking altogether, either by primarily fielding non-tankables, choosing not to aerial refuel (but limiting loiter time and response), or working within the Ukrainian fuel network (though coordinating matching attachments and fuel types may prove challenging.)
The AVG could be based at Ukrainian Air Force bases or even one or more recently shuttered commercial airports, with their long, wide runways, provided the surfaces are still serviceable and the positions are defensible against Russian shelling and air and missile strikes. Possible locations could be Cherkasy or Kirovohrad in central Ukraine because of the reasonable distance to both Kyiv and Odessa. Dnipropetrovs’k across the Dnieper River in the east might be a good forward airbase for the eastern front and the battle for Kharkiv.
Other defensive and support measures beyond the scope of the unit should also be implemented, such as missile-defense systems, hardened or discreet hangars, and construction personnel to rapidly rebuild damaged infrastructure like runways. And operational integration with the Ukrainian Air Force would only strengthen the AVG’s combat capabilities.
A Clearly Defined Mission
The key component to best employ the AVG is assigning a very clear and limited mission to support the Ukrainian military in the defense of its cities and the expulsion of the Russian invading armies. The unit should not be used as a long-term air policing force in the case of protracted guerilla warfare. It should not participate in any expanded war against Russian or Belarussian territory as long as the United States is not directly in conflict with those nations.
The first step of any campaign would require AVG and Ukrainian fighters to achieve local air superiority. This phase will require heavy support from AEWC2 and electronic warfare assets from within the AVG, as well as friendly surface-to-air missile (SAM) platforms from outside the unit.
Once air superiority is achieved, the second phase of the campaign would be an aerial assault against the invading forces. The first task should be to destroy Ukrainian roads and bridges on the Belarusian and Russian borders to isolate the invaders. Follow-on precision strikes would then be focused on inflicting high combatant casualties and materiel destruction.
Throughout both phases, attack aircraft could be used for close-air support, covering Ukrainian ground forces in contact, but the proper precautions would need to be taken to ensure the assets were protected from enemy air and SAM threats.
Avoiding a Wider War
If Russia’s withdrawal from the northern theater proves to be a feint followed by a greater reattack, the AVG should primarily focus its efforts on this region. If the areas surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv remain clear of invasion forces, then the AVG should support the Ukrainian war effort in Donbas.
Deploying the AVG to retake Crimea, returning the region to its pre-2014 borders, would be a mistake. Inserting U.S. airmen, even under a Ukrainian flag, into an eight-year-old war zone over a highly strategic warm-water seaport and rich oil reserves would almost certainly precipitate direct conflict between the United States and Russia and should be avoided.
Allowing Chennault and his men to engage the Japanese Empire carried different risks in the prenuclear age. Though the consequences of a Russian reaction to the AVG must be carefully analyzed and today’s risks mitigated wherever possible, refusing to take well-calibrated action only reaffirms to our rivals that their blustering threats are effective military strategies. If Russian leaders know they can invade their neighbors without fear of real reprisal, as they did in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, what incentive do they have to cease behaviors that greatly benefit them?
It is a very real possibility that Putin would interpret the proposed interference in his war as a sign of NATO aggression—even unsponsored, corporate intervention in non-separatist regions such as Kyiv and Odessa. Though he would almost certainly condemn the AVG as a mere U.S. government proxy and heat up his rhetoric, it seems unlikely that he would actually escalate in any meaningful way and risk total ruin against the entire NATO arsenal over a few squadrons of mercenaries.
Furthermore, any Russian censure of the AVG would ring hollow, given that country’s own murky relationship with homegrown corporate armies like the Slavonic Corps or the Wagner Group, which directly assaulted a U.S. outpost in Deir al-Zour, Syria on 7 February 2018, suffering 200 to 300 casualties (including their Syrian partners) against 40 unharmed U.S. troops. Intelligence suggests that the mercenary unit harbors deep ties to the Russian military, sharing a base in Molkino, Russia, with the 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade of Russia’s GRU, flying in active duty Russian Air Force transports, being treated in Russian military hospitals, and even being awarded personal decorations at the Kremlin. The AVG would not enjoy this kind of relationship with its own government.
If the Russo-Ukrainian War were to spill beyond its current borders and draw outside powers into direct conflict, the United States would benefit from having an established foothold in the region. The AVG could be absorbed into the U.S. Air Force, as was its forebear in 1942 with the Army Air Forces. Seasoned aviators would be an invaluable resource as advisors to brief and train new personnel entering the theater or even to lead squadrons in the horrifying combat that would surely follow this worst-case scenario.
Hopefully, the world will never see that war. But for now, the new American Volunteer Group is the best support the West can offer the Ukrainian people as they bravely fight a war they cannot escape.