- Should the US and its allies supply Western fixed-wing combat aircraft to Ukraine?
Yes — multi-role fighter jets specifically, Western or Russian-made. Ukraine deserves whatever the West can provide for its fight. The West should not be deterred by Russia’s bellicose threats and disinformation campaign, and should listen to President Zelenskyy’s emotional request to the British Parliament on February 8 to provide “wings for freedom.”
These fighters can be used to shore up Ukraine’s primarily ground-based combined arms defense against the Russian offensive and regain territory illegally occupied by Russian forces.
Ukrainian pilots and maintainers can learn to fly and service whatever fighters they receive. Further, Ukrainian military leaders can be trusted to employ whatever aircraft are provided to good effect, and within whatever caveats Western leaders may impose.
Ukrainian pilots have done remarkably well continuing to fly combat missions while protecting and maintaining a very small force of MiGs and helicopters against a vast array of modern Russian ground and airborne air defense. Ukrainian forces and leaders have demonstrated creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness in employing ground weapon systems they have received from Western nations. We should expect they will continue to do so with whatever aircraft are provided.
Learning to fly and maintain Western-made fighters will take time, and it will have to be accompanied by supplies and tools to keep them operationally ready. They may require additional runway/road sweeping machines to clear debris. They will need to be dispersed, protected, armed, and deployed from locations with sufficiently long runways for take-off and landing. These are all planning factors, but not reasons to deny fighters to Ukraine.
- Which types would be best suited?
Ukraine needs multi-role fighter jets that can conduct a variety of ground attacks, air interdiction, and air defense/air superiority missions. Western countries have several fighters that could fit the bill now from F-16s and Eurofighters to MiG-29s. Gripens and MiG-21s might also be available.
Here’s a quick summary of what is or might be on offer. Last year Poland offered to provide 28 recently retired MiG-29s, a type that Ukraine already flies. Slovakia has offered to provide its small fleet of MiG-29s (reportedly 11 of 12 were retired in 2022). The United Kingdom has offered to train Ukrainian pilots on its Eurofighter Typhoons, not specifying how many or when it might provide them. The UK already plans to retire 24 Typhoons by 2025. Italy, Spain, and Germany also have this aircraft, although none of these countries has hinted at providing fighters to Ukraine.
The US, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Romania haven’t ruled fighters out and have aircraft available to transfer. Together, the US and Denmark have over 1,300 F-16s. The US Congress authorized the USAF to retire 48 F-16s last year. Romania is transitioning from MiG-21s to F-16s.
Bottom line — numerous aircraft are available, but at the moment there are more naysayers than supporters in promoting the transfer of Western jets to Ukraine.
- What difference would they make to the war?
If provided in sufficient numbers and with sufficient speed, fighter jets would enable Ukraine to defend and regain occupied territory. Combat aircraft acting in an air interdiction or ground support role would provide much-needed standoff strike capability to support defensive and counter-offensive operations. They would be able to engage an array of key targets for Ukraine, such as Russian command and communications (C2), logistical supplies and nodes, air defense, electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, and of course maneuver units (armored/mechanized/motorized) and indirect fire units.
Fighter jets in an air defense or air-to-air role can defeat Russian MiGs and with the right radar and munitions can defeat drones and cruise missiles. Western fighter jets generally have better avionics, better radar, better guidance systems, better EW countermeasures, and better missiles than their Russian counterparts. Russian jets may be more maneuverable, but Russian pilots are unlikely to be as well trained as their Western or Ukrainian counterparts. Incoming Western combat vehicles, long-range fires, and air defense systems, along with fighter jets would enable a successful counter-offensive to regain Ukraine’s territory and defeat Putin’s objective to annex and retain portions of Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
But there are big questions to be answered; will this be approved, when, and how many?
In terms of timing, assuming a decision is made in the coming days, it will take several weeks to train pilots to fly Western-made aircraft and a few months to effectively employ them. Western-made aircraft would not be available before fall at best. But MiG-29s and the lesser capable MiG-21s could be incorporated much faster, perhaps as early as this summer.
Last year USAF leaders estimated that it would take as little as four-to-six weeks to train existing MiG pilots to fly an F-16, and another three-to-six months to effectively employ its sensors and weapon systems. USAF partner training programs already exist for the F-16 and other US-made jets. Training of maintenance crews and shipment of munitions, spares, tools, and support equipment could take place concurrently. Poland and Slovakia should meanwhile be encouraged and supported in providing their MiG-29s as soon as possible.
In terms of numbers, there are enough MiG-29s in Poland and Slovakia to form two squadrons of four flights each (32 total aircraft), which would likely double Ukraine’s operational fleet. There are enough F-16s available to form many more squadrons, but limiting factors would be Ukrainian student pilots and maintainers available for training, the supplies needed to arm and sustain the jets, and the infrastructure to support them. And it isn’t too soon to start thinking long term on the air force Ukraine will need post-conflict. A combination of Western F-16s and Russian-made MiG-29s could be a sustainable mix.
- If the West supplied jets, would still there be an argument to deny Ukraine longer-range artillery ammunition?
Western concerns over long-range systems have centered around the risk of escalation and potential enlargement of the war to allied nations. Russian threats, bluster, disinformation, and propaganda have followed each Western decision to provide major weapon systems to Ukraine.
It is time for Western leaders to commit to supporting Ukraine in its effort to restore full territorial integrity and stand up to Putin’s naked aggression and power games.
This includes the provision of longer-range artillery munition like the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (now on the way) and Army Tactical Missile Systems (not approved . . . yet.) Ukraine should be trusted to employ the Western systems and munitions it receives to restore its occupied territory and refrain from targeting civilian infrastructure, or civilians in Russia.
Western political leaders have slowly moved forward with greater and greater military assistance, spurred by the clear evidence of Russia’s barbarity. More importantly, there is an existential necessity for the Western to stand shoulder to shoulder with a democratic European nation under assault to prevent future conflict in Europe; further hesitation would invite just that.
Skip Davis is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.