Explainer: Why NATO allies are unlikely to send more advanced jets to Ukraine
In one of the most significant escalations of military support to Ukraine from a NATO member since the Russian invasion, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday became the first leader from the security alliance to pledge fighter jets to Kyiv.
Duda announced that four MiG-29 fighters will be handed over to Ukraine in the coming days – the rest, he said, are being serviced and will likely be handed over successively. Four might sound a modest number, but it is a monumental step from a year ago, when a NATO member sending such sophisticated lethal support to Ukraine was politically unthinkable.
It is unsurprising this step was taken by Poland – a country with a pronounced anxiety of Russian expansionism kindled by deep historical experience of Russian aggression.
Will it make a difference? On a political level, it certainly could. By normalizing such support, it could start a domino effect whereby more European countries go on to provide fighter jets to Ukraine.
Less than a day after Poland’s pledge, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced his government would send a fleet of 13 MiG fighter jets to support the defense of Ukraine. It is plausible that more European countries will follow suit, and free up their Soviet-designed MiGs as they modernize their own air forces.
This is exactly what Poland is doing. Last year the country signed a historically large $14.5 billion defense deal with South Korea which included the purchase of 48 FA-50 light aircraft, and it has also added American F-35 Lighting II stealth fighters to its fleet. Another practical advantage is that because many European countries have MIG-29s, their parts are more readily available for the repair and maintenance of Ukrainian aircraft.
On the question of a military advantage, the Kremlin has been predictably dismissive, claiming the gift of more Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine will not alter the course of the conflict. Which might be why it is F-16s – and not MiGs – that are in fact at the top of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wish list.
For obvious reasons, the precise make-up of Ukraine’s air force, most likely around a tenth of the size of Russia’s, remains shrouded in secrecy. Ukraine inherited dozens of Soviet-made MiG-29 planes after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, about five years after they entered service. But its fleet took a hit after Russia illegally annexed Crimea.
MiG-29s are analog aircraft, using older flight technology. Zelensky’s sought-after F-16s are digital. MiGs can be used for short combat missions, they can deploy weaponry and shoot down Russian aircraft with good maneuverability at short range. But F-16s can fly for longer, are more versatile, possess integrated weapons systems and have dramatically better long range and radar capability, therefore providing improved early warning.
Defense analyst Alex Walmsley, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, uses the analogy of comparing a “1990s laptop with the latest MacBook. Or a Ford Escort and a Porsche. Basically they do the same things – fly and launch missiles – but MIGs are not as responsive or powerful.”
The US has so far resisted calls to provide F-16s to Ukraine on the grounds of avoiding escalation with Russia, as well as impracticality. The desire to avoid a cataclysmic spill-over of the conflict was front of mind this week after the downing of a $32 million US Reaper drone over the Black Sea by a Russian jet – the first time Russian and American aircraft have come into direct contact since the war began. The potentially incendiary incident was seized on by Russia as proof of direct American involvement in the conflict.
Still, the shift from resistance to delivery has happened before; the US came around to supplying Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks after Germany reversed their own policy on Leopard II tanks.
But the impracticality argument is not a mere political fig leaf. The Ukrainian Air Force already operates MiG jets so they will be able to use them as soon as they arrive, whereas it would take months to train a MiG-29 pilot to a high level of comfort and efficacy on an F-16. Not to mention that Ukrainian pilots are in short supply.
Retired US Lieutenant General Mark Hertling notes that while the Ukrainians have been very adaptable incorporating new kit like user-friendly Himars and Javelins, F-16s are a “whole different ballgame.” They have different engine parts, design and fire control systems for shooting and dropping bombs. “Lots of people want things to happen right now in Ukraine,” says Hertling, “but without years of peacetime training and establishment of sustainment and repair, you’re just not going to get the results you think you’re going to get.”
The first pledges of jets will uplift Ukraine’s air defense, but in no way decisively alter or provide an edge for Ukraine in the conflict. Former RAF F-16 Fighter Pilot William Gilpin tells CNN: “There’s a saying – if you’re a generation behind, there’s no point turning up. Right now the Ukrainian Air Force is a generation behind the Russians. The F-16s would move them a generation ahead.”
This is the dilemma. The impracticality of supplying Ukraine with F-16 jets, requiring a huge burden of training in the middle of an active conflict, is clear. But without them, obtaining air superiority is further out of reach.