When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Moscow had an air force that could have hundreds of fighters. MiG and Sukhoi in reserve. The Ukrainian fighter fleet was by some estimates much more insignificant, numbering 69 aircraft at most. According to experts, its size was one tenth that of Russia.
Ukraine and its supporters claim that Western fighters are now needed to tip the scales in Ukraine’s favorwhile enabling close air support and air interdiction missions.
“Ukraine has never asked American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us”Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during an in-person address to Congress in December. “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly handle American tanks and planes by themselves.”
In a February letter to US President Joe Biden, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the administration to provide F-16 or other fighters to Ukraineand quickly make a decision so that the country has time to train its pilots.
“Unlike current ground-based air defense platforms used by Ukrainian forces, the ability of fighter jets to quickly traverse a wide combat space with a significant weapons load could prove decisive for the control of Ukrainian airspace this year,” the lawmakers noted. Jared Golden, Democrat from Maine; Tony Gonzales, Republican of Texas; Jason Crow, Democrat from Colorado; Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, and Chrissy Houlahan, Democrat of Pennsylvania.
During last year, military aid sent by the United States and its allies has increased steadily in firepower; weapons include loitering munitions, artillery, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and more. More recently, after weeks of hesitation, Washington in January approved the delivery of M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine, along with Germany’s decision to provide Leopard 2 main battle tanks.
Some Western government leaders have kept the door open when it comes to the supply of fighter jets, with UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace telling reporters in February: “Nothing is to be ruled out.”
But not everyone is convinced. Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl recently told lawmakers that weapons to dominate Ukrainian airspace, such as Western fighter jets, worth less than air defense equipment meant to deny Russia heavenlike the Patriot system.
F-16s or other fighters are “a priority for Ukrainians, but (they’re not) one of his top three priorities,” Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee on February 28. “Their top priorities are air defense systems (and) keeping their interceptors and air defense network alive against Russian cruise missiles and the like, and Iranian drones, artillery and fires… and armored systems and mechanized”.
Kahl said that providing even three dozen old F-16s would cost about $3 billion – and a larger fleet could cost as much as $11 billion.
During the same hearing, the ranking Democratic representative, Adam Smith of Washington, expressed skepticism about the feasibility and the effect that the supply of F-16s would have on the war.
“Even if we were to basically say that there is nothing more important than that weapons system and spend all of our time and all of our resources on it, at best we could get some operational F-16s to Ukraine within a yearmaybe eight months if we really tried,” Smith said. “And this is being lucky. Because not only do you have to train the pilots, but also the mechanics, have aerodromes that can accommodate the F-16s and have the spare parts to make them work”.
Ukrainian fighter pilots fly MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker aircraft. Flight International’s 2022 air force almanac listed the Ukrainian service as having 43 MiG-29s and 26 Su-27s in its fleet.
But Justin Bronk, a senior fellow for air power and technology at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, said Flight International’s tally is “quite optimistic.” The real situation in Ukraine is much more problematiche said, although he refused to give specific examples, citing security reasons. Bronk, who is also a professor at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, has extensively researched Ukraine’s military needs and traveled to the country last fall.
Russia, for its part, has about 370 MiG-29, -31 and -35 fighters, as well as 350 Su-27, -30 and -35 fighters., according to the Flight International almanac. Fighters like the MiG-35 and Su-35 of the Russian fleet are also more advanced than those of the Ukraine.
In addition to numbers, Russia has several significant advantages over the Ukrainian Air Force, Bronk noted. Russian fighters have “drastically better” radar and missile capabilities, said. The country also has command and control and early warning aircraft, which Ukraine lacks, as well as better ground-based air defenses with supporting radars.
Newer, more advanced fighters and weapons would allow Ukraine to suppress enemy air defenses, according to Heather Penney, a former F-16 pilot and now a researcher-in-residence at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Once cleared, she added, Ukraine could carry out close air support missions and interception strikes against tank columns, artillery emplacements, massed infantry and Russian ships.
This would take the pressure off Ukraine’s ground forces and free them up to carry out their own operations. As for the drones, Ukraine has used them creatively, Penney said.but “they are not going to change the course of the conflict.”
For example, Ukraine used its handful of inexpensive Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones to bomb Russian vehicles and other military objectives in the first months of the war. Ukraine has also used US-supplied loitering munitions, such as the Switchblade 300 and 600 made by AeroVironment and the Air Force-developed Phoenix Ghost.
But until now The United States has resisted sending more advanced drones to Ukraine, such as the Gray Eagle and the MQ-9 Reaper. The country is not short of pilots, Bronk said, but the problem is that they don’t have enough airworthy planes. Ukraine is having a particularly hard time with the availability of its Flankers, he added.
The fact that the Ukrainian fighter fleet is Russian-made seriously limits its access to spare parts, worsening the availability of the planes. This is one of the main reasons why Ukraine needs to move away from MiGs and Sukhois. and approaching Western fighters, US Air Force Chief of Staff General CQ Brown stated at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2022.
Brown cited the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale and the European Eurofighter as possible candidates for the future Ukrainian fleet, in addition to American-made fighters.
Since Russia launched its invasion, Bronk said, Ukraine has bolstered its fighter fleet as much as it can by “aggressively” upgrading aircraft that weren’t airworthy, and pulling old frames out of mothballs for repair.
“Probably, would not meet airworthiness standards in times of peace, let alone combat readiness,” Bronk said. “But they’re in an existential struggle, so of course they’re making use of what they can.”
Kyiv has frequently requested Western aircraft such as the F-16 made by Lockheed Martin, But Bronk said the unique challenges facing his Air Force mean there are better options.
Keeping a series of small air bases operational is difficult, he explained, and Ukraine would not be able to resurface all its runways to keep them smooth and tidy. In the chaos of war, he explained, Ukraine would also be unable to keep its runways regularly clear of foreign object debris, which could prove devastating to the F-16, given its large, wide air intake under the fuselage that could suck in debris. . Debris could also damage the landing gear if it kicks up during takeoff or landing, he added.
The F-16 “is a light fighter designed for nice runways,” Bronk said. “Most of the Ukrainian tracks are quite rough. So if they move that way, the fighter has to be (able to) withstand it and not suffer a massive increase in maintenance (needs)and the support team and maintenance agreements have to be able to do that.”
According to Bronk, Western fighters in Ukraine would immediately become priority targets for Russia, which would probably force Ukraine to continue with its strategy of dispersing the planes and moving them. That would present more complications for the F-16, since its ground support equipment tends to be bulky and difficult to disperse, he added.
A better option for Ukraine might be the Gripen, Bronk said, because its standard maintenance and logistics equipment can be loaded into standard 20-foot containers and easily moved on trucks.
The F-18, made by BoeingDesigned for saline marine environments and more robust than the F-16, it is another option, Bronk said, and its support equipment is compact enough for Ukraine’s needs.
But while Western fighters are easier to fly than MiGs and Sukhoi, Bronk added, its mission systems and weapons technology are more complicated.
Training of Ukrainian pilots -especially from their experienced fighter pilots- on fourth-generation Western fighters it shouldn’t be too difficult, Penney said. Typically, the US Air Force takes eight months to a year to train its pilots on its fighters.
“They don’t have to be perfect,” Penney said. “They have to be good enough…that they can execute in combat.” He said that The US could develop an agile and accelerated training program for Ukrainian pilots it would last two to two and a half months.
However, John Venable, a former F-16 pilot and a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said that properly training Ukrainian pilots to use the F-16 would be difficult. “Learning to fly an F-16 is easy for a pilot”Venable noted. “Learning to use the F-16 is difficult,” he stressed.