March 10, 2022
By David M. Fortier, Senior Field Editor
One of the first objectives of the Russian Air Force on 24 February 2022 was knocking the Ukrainian Air Force from the sky. At the start of Russia’s invasion Ukraine had only about 225 planes of all types, while Russia had over 5,000. Yet despite overwhelming odds, the Ukrainian Air Force has held on and not been completely driven from the skies. Instead, despite their losses, they have fought back against the invasion. To date, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, 48 Russian aircraft and 80 helicopters have been shot down. To make up for their combat losses Ukraine has requested European countries to provide additional fighter jets to make up for their combat losses so they can continue their fight in the air.
Providing fighter aircraft to Ukraine though isn’t as straightforward for the West as a layman might think at first glance. There are two main hurdles. The first is simply the type of aircraft the Ukrainian Air Force fields and is trained to fly and maintain. The second is Russia and what their response will be.
To date the Ukraine Fighter squadrons have been equipped with MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets. Both of these are older Soviet designs which were developed in the 1970s and put into service in the 1980s. Both were designed to face off against US jet fighters like the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. They were both intended for air superiority missions, but over time variants evolved to be able to perform most aerial warfare missions. These are what Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly and fight in, their ground crews are trained on to maintain, and what their supply chain has parts and tools for.
The problem is both of these are older Soviet designs. Keep in mind, Ukraine is not part of NATO. The United States, England, France and most NATO countries do not have quantities of these older Soviet designs readily available. Plus, many former Warsaw Pact countries now part of NATO no longer fly MiG-29s. Simply providing Western designs, like F-16s isn’t an alternative either. Ukrainian pilots are not trained on these designs. Plus, modern fighter aircraft require intensive maintenance and their ground crews would not be able to provide this. While MiG-29s are an older design, it is better to have older and less capable aircraft than no aircraft.
Some of the former Warsaw Pact countries now part of NATO still fly some older Soviet designs. In particular, Poland has maintained a quantity of MiG-29 fighters. They have a total of 27 single and two-seat MiG-29s, and today the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered to deliver all of them to the US-run Ramstein Air Base in Germany, “immediately and free of charge”. These would then be available to the United States to deliver directly to Ukraine. In exchange Poland requested the United States to “provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities”. It is expected the United States would supply Poland with F-16 fighters to replace their Mig-29s. Two other countries, Bulgaria and Slovakia, also have Mig-29 fighters, but to date they have declined to offer them to Ukraine.
The other consideration with providing fighter jets to Ukraine is a possible Russian response and escalation of the ongoing conflict. To date, the Russian invasion has displaced almost 2 million Ukrainian citizens, destroyed towns, cities and infrastructure, killed thousands, brought untold misery and sadness and currently has no end in sight. Other former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Poland, have to worry about the very real threat of Russian retaliation if they provide aid to Ukraine’s defense. They have to worry if they will be next on Russia’s list. If they provide fighter jets to help defend Ukraine, will a Polish city be bombed next? The memory of what it was like being locked into the Soviet bloc has not been forgotten in Poland. HERE is the full statement from the Republic of Poland Ministry of Foreign Affairs released March 8th 2022:
The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Goverment, are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.
At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.
The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.
While Poland offered their MiG-29s, they offered them to the United States to give to Ukraine, not to give them directly. March 9th 2022 saw a quick veto of this idea from the United States Pentagon. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States does not support supplying Ukraine with Soviet-era fighter jets due to the high risk of possibly escalating the conflict. He stated Ukraine would be better-served with more anti-tank and surface to air missiles rather than jet fighters.
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About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.