Poland announced that it is to send four of its MiG-29 Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine, with the hint that more may follow them. This has been replicated by Slovakia pledging to do the same, saying it will send thirteen of its now redundant fleet (three without engines apparently). This is good news for the Ukrainians, who are already familiar with the aircraft and have some already in their inventory. A minimum of pilot training will be required before they are ready for action.
The MiG-29 is known to NATO as “Fulcrum”, and is a fourth generation twin-engine aircraft that first came into service with the Soviet Union in 1983. Designed at the outset to counter the US F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, it has been updated over time to keep it broadly competitive.
The Ukrainians may have had as many as 30-40 MiGs operational at the time of the Russian invasion of February 2022 but exact numbers are hard to gauge. Be that as it may, the influx of additional airframes from Poland and Slovakia will be most welcome. To date the west has proved reluctant to provide aircraft to Ukraine for fear of escalation.
Whether this donation opens the floodgates to other nations sending jet fighters to Ukraine, rather like the UK sending 14 Challenger 2s did for tanks, remains to be seen.
What the Ukrainians really want and really need of course, as I have written oftentimes before, is US-built F-16 Fighting Falcons. Why? Well, the F-16 is pretty much the industry-standard single engine jet fighter of the west. Introduced into service in the US Air Force in 1978, around 4,600 have been produced and it is in service with 26 states around the world.
Crucially, the F-16 has been continuously upgraded during its service and has evolved into a multi-role aircraft of choice for the US’ allies. Now being superseded in service by the more capable F-15s and F-35s, it is available in numbers from retired stocks. Logistic support, therefore, is not seen as a major problem.
And yet again, as with the supply of tanks previously, western politicians have proved wary and timid in supplying such an aircraft to Ukraine for fear of escalating the conflict with Russia. Various excuses have been deployed like the difficulty in providing maintenance facilities for the aircraft or, more popularly, the time it would take to train Ukrainian pilots unfamiliar with western aircraft type.
This latter excuse does not stand up to scrutiny. It is not as if the Ukrainians would be starting from scratch to learn how to fly the F-16. They already know how to fly. What is required is a conversion course to adapt to western types and, although I am no aviator, I imagine this could be accomplished in roughly three months or so. Ukraine’s problem is not lack of pilots, it’s lack of aircraft for them to crew.
There are other options apart from the F-16. Sweden’s Saab Gripen aircraft are often mentioned as a possible alternative for Ukraine. Capable and robust, they are able to operate from improvised airfields and might suit what’s happening on the battlefield at the moment. Another mentioned is the early tranche one versions of the RAF’s Typhoon fighter, now being retired for upgraded versions.
In many ways, though, the type of aircraft is of secondary importance, logistical and training issues notwithstanding. What is really important, as with tanks and everything else, is numbers. Ukraine needs more than a handful of western fighters, it needs literally hundreds, and quickly.
And the reason is that without air superiority, even local air superiority limited in both time and space, the UkrAF will not be able to mount the sort of counter-offensive necessary using its ground manoeuvre troops to recapture territory seized and controlled by the Russians. Without air cover their brigades and battlegroups will be extremely vulnerable to – yes, you’ve guessed it – attack by the Russian air force.
All of which means, in this context, that the supply of a few elderly MiG-19s from Poland and Slovakia is extraordinarily important if it leads the way for others to contribute more, possibly more sophisticated aircraft to Ukraine. Without them the war may drag on for even longer.
So well done to the governments of Poland and Slovakia. Let’s hope your actions will encourage other political leaders to find the cojones to do the same.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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