Explainer: Why NATO allies are unlikely to send more advanced jets to Ukraine
In one of the biggest escalations in military support for Ukraine from a NATO member since the Russian invasion, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday became the first leader of the security alliance to pledge planes hunting in Kyiv.
Duda announced that four MiG-29 fighters will be handed over to Ukraine in the coming days – the others, he said, are undergoing maintenance and will likely be handed over successively. Four may seem like a modest number, but it’s a monumental step from a year ago, when a NATO member sending such sophisticated lethal support to Ukraine was politically unthinkable.
It is not surprising that this step was taken by Poland – a country with a pronounced anxiety about Russian expansionism, fueled by a deep historical experience of Russian aggression.
Will it make a difference? Politically, it is certainly possible. Normalizing this support could trigger a domino effect whereby more European countries continue to supply fighter jets to Ukraine.
Less than a day after Poland’s commitment, Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced that 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 release 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 significant $14.5 billion defense deal with South Korea, which included the purchase of 48 FA-50 light aircraft, and it also added US stealth fighters F-35 Lighting II to its fleet. Another practical advantage is that since many European countries have MIG-29s, their parts are more readily available for repair and maintenance of Ukrainian aircraft.
On the question of a military advantage, the Kremlin was predictably dismissive, saying that donating more Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine would not alter the tide of the conflict. Perhaps that’s why it’s the F-16s – not the MiGs – that are actually at the top of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wish list.
For obvious reasons, the precise composition of the Ukrainian air force, probably about a tenth of that of Russia, remains shrouded in secrecy. Ukraine inherited dozens of Soviet-made MiG-29 aircraft after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, about five years after they entered service. But its fleet was hit after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia.
MiG-29s are analog aircraft, using older flight technology. Zelensky’s wanted F-16s are digital. MiGs can be used for short combat missions, they can deploy weapons and shoot down Russian aircraft with good maneuverability at close range. But the F-16s can fly longer, are more versatile, have integrated weapons systems, and have dramatically better range and radar capability, providing better early warning.
Defense analyst Alex Walmsley, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, uses the analogy of comparing a “1990s laptop to the latest MacBook. Or a Ford Escort and a Porsche. Basically, they do the same things – fly and launch missiles – but MIGs aren’t as responsive or powerful.
The United States has so far resisted calls to supply Ukraine with F-16s on the grounds of avoiding escalation with Russia, as well as impossibility. The desire to avoid a cataclysmic spillover from the conflict was on the mind this week after a $32 million US Reaper drone was shot down over the Black Sea by a Russian jet – the first time that Russian and American aircraft have come into direct contact since the war began. The potentially incendiary incident was seized upon by Russia as evidence of direct US involvement in the conflict.
Yet the move from resistance to delivery has already happened; the United States decided to supply Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks after Germany reversed its own policy on Leopard II tanks.
But the impracticality argument is not just a political fig leaf. The Ukrainian Air Force already operates MiG jets so that they can be used as soon as they arrive, when it would take months to train a MiG-29 pilot to a high level of comfort and efficiency on an F -16. Not to mention that Ukrainian pilots are rare.
Retired US Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling notes that while the Ukrainians have been very adaptable in incorporating new kits like user-friendly Himars and Javelins, the F-16s are a “totally different ballgame.” They have different engine parts, design and fire control systems to fire and drop bombs. “A lot of people want things to happen now in Ukraine,” Hertling says, “but without years of peacetime training and a sustainment and repairs system in place, you won’t just won’t get the results you were hoping for. ”
The first promises of jet aircraft will strengthen Ukraine’s air defense, but in no way modify or give Ukraine a decisive advantage in the conflict. Former RAF F-16 fighter pilot William Gilpin told CNN: “There’s a saying – if you’re a generation behind, there’s no point in showing up. Currently, the Ukrainian Air Force is a generation behind the Russians. The F-16s would take them a generation forward.
This is the dilemma. The impossibility of supplying Ukraine with F-16 jets, requiring a huge training burden in the midst of active conflict, is clear. But without them, achieving air superiority is even more out of reach.