Ukraine's Quest for Western Aircraft

Recently Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence, reiterated his government’s plea to its allies to provide them with modern western aircraft. The minister had also stated that they did not need the A-10 Warthog or other similar attack aircraft; rather, Ukraine needs aircraft that can be used for air defence. This is in contradiction to what other members of the Ukrainian government have stated before. An example is what the head of Ukrainian Intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, had stated that they needed attack aircraft like the A-10 and helicopters like the AH-64 Apache.

There have been instances in the past of NATO members putting forward the idea of transferring their aircraft to Ukraine in return for getting surplus US-origin aircraft. But these were mainly older Soviet/Russian fighter jets in the inventory of some of its Eastern European members. As far back as February last year, the European Union (EU) proposed that they were willing to fund an initiative to buy fighter jets from member states and then transfer them to Ukraine. Then in March, there were reports that the United States (US) was pushing Poland to transfer its Mig-29s to Ukraine, and talks were also underway to replace the 28 Mig-29s with US-built fighters. But Poland was not very receptive to the idea and even stated that any such news that they were about to transfer its jets to Ukraine was fake. There were fears that such a transfer from Poland or any other NATO member would be viewed by Russia as active participation by NATO in the conflict.

Then in July of last year, there were reports that Slovakia would be giving its 11 Mig-29 fighter jets to Ukraine after it finalised a deal with neighbouring  Czech Republic and Poland to patrol their airspace. Slovakia was said to be counting on getting surplus F-16s from other NATO members which were phasing out the type to fill the capacity gap in the delayed period of them getting their newly built F-16s and the retirement of their Mig-29s. This deal, like the ones before, collapsed due to the consideration of the states, which were to give the aircraft or the US after they were thoroughly explored, and these deals were for Mig-29s, but the Ukrainians, even then, were asking for western aircraft.

At the same time, two Ukrainian pilots are present in the US, where they are being assessed on their skills and potentially how long it would take to train them on western fighters, specifically the F-16.

Just this month, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Colin Kahl, stated before the House Armed Services Committee that Ukraine had asked for around 128 fighters, a mix of F-15, F-16, and F-18, to rebuild and strengthen its air force. The Under Secretary told the Committee that it would take at least 18 months to train Ukrainian pilots on any western aircraft and a similar period to send refurbished F-16s or similar aircraft to Ukraine. He also informed the Committee that since neither the US nor any of its allies had decided to provide F-16s, there was no use in starting the training of Ukrainian pilots for them. According to the Under Secretary, the US Air Force has estimated that somewhere between 50 to 80 F-16s would be needed to replace the current Ukrainian fleet. Depending on the model and overall quantity, it would cost around $10-11 billion.

At the same time, two Ukrainian pilots are present in the US, where they are being assessed on their skills and potentially how long it would take to train them on western fighters, specifically the F-16. Officials have stated that they would not fly any aircraft and would be only using simulators. This exercise would help advise them on how better they could use their capabilities and develop new ones. Besides, ten more Ukrainian pilots have been approved to travel to the US to participate in this programme.

In February of this year, the United Kingdom (UK) committed to training Ukrainian pilots as a part of ongoing efforts to militarily aid Ukraine. According to a statement issued by the UK government, the training would begin in spring and help the Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO standard fighters. This led to speculation about whether the UK would transfer the older Eurofighter Typhoons from its own fleet to Ukraine. But there are many potential snags in transferring Typhoons, the foremost being that Germany, Italy and Spain would have to sign off on it since the Eurofighter was a joint project between the four countries. Another hitch may be that the older Eurofighters primarily have air-to-air capability with only a limited air-to-ground activity, with seemingly only the British jets able to drop a single type of precision bomb (none of the other partner nations having this ability). The ground crew, radar operators, and weapons specialists, among others, would also need to be trained in working with and working on the aircraft. But there has been no hint that the UK or other NATO members who operate the Typhoon are willing to transfer their aircraft to Ukraine.

Ukraine has received western helicopters from both the US and the UK. The US has transferred an unknown number of S-70/UH-60 Black Hawks, which are more modern than any other helicopters operated by Ukraine. The UK transferred three Sea King helicopters after the crews set to operate them underwent a six-week course in the UK. There have also been talks of supplying Ukraine with MQ-9 Reaper drones, and there is debate on whether they would be able to survive in an environment where Russian air defences were operating in close proximity. If supplied, these drones could carry out multiple missions like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), strike missions and acting as communication nodes.

The US has recently announced that it will be providing various types of small drones and loitering munitions to Ukraine. Some of these systems will allow Ukraine to undertake long-range strike capabilities and enhance its precision strike capabilities. The US is also looking at the possibility of improving the capabilities of the fighter aircraft in the Ukrainian fleet, which comprises Mig-29 and Su-27, arming them with AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (also called AMRAAMs), which are better than anything Ukraine possess in its arsenal. Before this, the US had already integrated AGM-88 HARMs to target Russian air defences and, more recently, JDAM-ER long-range precision-guided bombs. All these efforts combined will give Ukraine’s existing aircraft a massive capability boost.

As this article was being written, the Polish Prime Minister stated that his country might transfer as many as 14 Mig-29 aircraft to Ukraine within four to six weeks. This statement came just a few days after the Slovakian Defence Minister stated that the time has come to decide on sending Mig-29s to Ukraine. Slovakia has 11 Mig-29 aircraft, which were retired from service last summer. If both or either of the countries successfully transfers their aircraft to Ukraine, even though they may not be western aircraft, they will increase the overall strength of Ukraine’s fighter fleet and be a much easier and time-saving induction.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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