Much as Germany dragged its heels over sending tanks to Ukraine before it was frog-marched into doing so by the force of diplomatic and public opinion, now the USA is proving reluctant to follow up with modern fighter jets and long range missiles. This not to say that President Biden has not been generous with his support of Ukraine in the current Russo-Ukraine conflict. In 2022 the USA donated nearly $50 billion in humanitarian, financial, and military support, with an additional package of circa $3.75 announced just last week.
But there are still some limitations put on the types of weaponry supplied. President Zelensky has constantly been asking for fighter jets and even longer range precision missiles, but to date his requests have fallen on deaf ears. The USA seems to be extremely wary of giving the UkrAF anything which might be seen to escalate their war from a purely defensive one to an offensive one, perhaps for fear of provoking a direct confrontation between the US/NATO and Russia.
However, there are strong arguments why Biden should relent and let Zelensky have what he wants. Ukraine may have received just enough, just in time, from the west to prevent it from losing the war. What is needs now, though, is sufficient weaponry of the right type to help it expel the Russian invaders and actually win the war. To do this it needs exactly want has been asking for, and in quantity.
A prerequisite for taking the offensive and undertaking the armoured manoeuvre warfare required to throw the Russians out is air superiority. Neither side has been able to gain this so far, hence the current stalemate. Without it armoured formations are extremely vulnerable to interdiction from the air.
Currently the Ukrainians are equipped with older, less capable Soviet and Russian models like the MiG-29 and the older Sukhoi models. Many of these have already been lost to enemy action and the Ukrainians are understandably reluctant to take too many risks with its remaining aircraft, which are outnumbered by those of its enemy.
As I have written before, the obvious and preferred candidate for the Ukrainian fast jet force is the American F-16 Fighting Falcon. It is a single-engine, highly manoeuverable, supersonic, multi-role tactical fighter aircraft, smaller and lighter than many competitors but widely available and sold by the US to at least twenty-five other countries. Spares and retired F-16s in storage are available in quantity right now. It is exactly the right ‘plane for Ukraine. Given the urgency of the situation, training the pilots to fly them must be of secondary concern; it can be done.
Poland has already indicated that is ready to send some of its F-16s to Ukraine, but requires the green light from the USA to do so, just as they and other countries required Germany’s permission to send Leopard 2 tanks.
Also required by the UkrAF are more long range, precision, artillery and missile systems. The good news is that a new rocket that would double Ukraine’s strike range in its war with Russia was included in a $2.175 billion US military aid package announced last week.
The new weapon, the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), will allow Ukraine’s military to hit targets at twice the distance reachable by the rockets it now fires from the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and GMLRS tracked launchers.
While encouraging, I don’t think goes far enough. Ukraine needs to be able to – and has every right to – reach beyond is borders to attack Russian bases from which attacks are being launched against it cities and interrupt and destroy supply lines and arms dumps.
The obvious candidate here is the US ATACMS missile, which has a 300 kilometre range and would allow Ukraine to interdict, for example, the bridge across the Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea with great accuracy. It too can be launched from the systems already in Ukrainian hands.
It’s difficult to understand why the USA is being so timid here. It could even, I dare say, impose restrictions on the use of such weapons should it really fear the threat of escalation, but I think the last thing Putin and Russia will want is a direct confrontation with the USA/NATO, for the simple reason that they will lose, and lose badly.
So, c’mon President Biden! Pull your finger out and give Ukraine the tools it needs to finish the job!
Lt Col Stuart Crawford
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now