Ukrainian top-gun pilot “Juice” is all too aware of the MiG-29 fighter jet’s limitations when he tries to intercept Russian missiles. The 40-year-old radar on his Soviet aircraft was not designed to detect cruise missiles or drones, he said. So he has not been able to destroy any of them.
“It’s very sad to fly back and land after such a hunting operation, understanding that a prey flew to its target, destroyed buildings and even killed people — and you could not help them,” the 29-year-old pilot, who wanted to be identified only by his call sign, told the Financial Times in an interview.
Juice pleaded for western allies to provide his country with modern fighter jets, explaining that Ukraine’s ageing fleet was outgunned by Russia’s SU-35s and MiG-31s, which have air-to-air missiles with longer ranges and superior radar.
“The situation for our aviation is getting worse and worse with each day,” Juice said.
As soon as Ukraine extracted pledges of modern battle tanks from western allies last month, its military and political leaders turned their attention towards fighter jets. Kyiv has for months pressed its Nato allies to provide western aircraft, such as the US-built F-16, which are gradually being replaced with newer models but are still more than a match for most Russian aircraft.
“What Ukraine needs is fourth-generation combat fighter jets,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister.
Until now, leading Nato powers have balked at providing fighter jets, fearing they would be too complicated for Ukrainian forces to master quickly and maintain and could provoke Russia into escalating the conflict. But in some capitals, those assessments are shifting.
Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra said last month that the Netherlands would consider any requests to send F-16s with “an open mind” and that there were “no taboos” on military support. French President Emmanuel Macron has also signalled that Paris would not exclude sending its own Mirage fighter jets.
“I do hope that this red line — if it really exists, and I think it exists only in our heads — will also be crossed,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told local television on Monday.
But Ukraine’s biggest military backers are yet to be convinced on the merits of providing jets or do not have the models Ukraine wants. Britain, a frontrunner on tanks, only operates Typhoons and F-35 and will not send any of them. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned against a “bidding war” for western weaponry. Asked whether the US was prepared to send F-16s, President Joe Biden responded with a flat No.
Some western officials have questioned whether fighter jets are a priority given that it takes a minimum of six months to train pilots not only how to fly the plane but also to operate weapons systems.
Since neither Ukraine nor Russia controls the skies, the role of aviation has played a less prominent role in what is largely a land war shaped by artillery. Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300 air defence system, supplemented by western portable surface-to-air missiles, has stopped Russian jets from venturing far into Ukrainian airspace.
The big risk for Ukraine, say analysts, is that its air force — consisting of dozens of ageing MiG-29s, SU-27s, SU-24 bombers and SU-25 ground attack aircraft — is depleted through combat just as its air defences run low on ammunition.
If Russian jets were able to fly over Ukraine without serious risk of being shot down, they could strike Ukrainian troops, military facilities and critical infrastructure.
“Our primary task in this war is to deny the ability for Russia to freely use its piloted aviation deep into Ukrainian airspace,” said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Alas, the contested character of Ukrainian airspace has been taken for granted by the west for far too long.”
Kyiv has a clear preference for the US-built F-16, which is operated by 30 countries including eight European members of Nato, providing a potential pool to draw on. The US would have to grant permission to any country that wanted to send F-16s to Ukraine — something that Biden did not explicitly rule out.
“The reason why the F-16 is the best option is that it can be used to cover ground operations on the front line,” said Sak. “It can be used as part of Ukraine’s air defence because they are efficient at intercepting ballistic missiles and other flying objects that Russia uses to terrorise Ukraine.”
Analysts at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute think-tank suggested last year that Kyiv might be better off with Swedish-built Gripens, a lighter and cheaper jet that might be easier to maintain and operate from multiple Ukrainian airfields. But these would need to be purchased from the manufacturer and Sweden, whose application to join Nato has stalled over Turkish objections, would have to agree.
Western fighter jets could give Ukraine bigger capabilities, according to Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at RUSI, but Russia’s formidable air defences would force them to fly at low altitude for ground support missions, limiting their effectiveness.
Juice said the F-16 had better modern sensors, avionics and weaponry than any of the planes in Ukraine’s fleet, and could be used with missiles that have a longer range than enemy fire, helping to counter Russia’s superior jets. Ukraine could not afford to wait because it was losing its best pilots in combat.
“If we wait six months more, we will get to the moment when we will have only reservist grandpas, not young pilots with good knowledge, good training.”
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