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Why does Ukraine need western jets and where could it get them?

Ghost of Kyiv
The mural “The Ghost of Kyiv” was painted in Kyiv to honor the “collective image” of the pilots of the 40th tactical aviation brigade that protected the skies above the Ukrainian capital from Russian attacks in the early days of the Russian full-scale invasion. Credit: facebook.com/kirill.timoshenko
Why does Ukraine need western jets and where could it get them?
Article by: Gabriel Kosiack
The call to close the skies initially subsided in the spring of 2022, but now Ukraine’s major goal, again, is to receive western fighting jets. Why is receiving combat aviation so crucial for Ukraine, and what models could it realistically get?

After German hesitancy was overcome, the announcement of the formation of the international coalition to deliver desperately needed Leopard 2 combat tanks to Ukraine marked a significant new milestone for Ukraine. The next big challenge – delivery of fighter jets to Ukraine – would thus be part of a larger Western effort to assist it in its fight against the Russian invader.

Kyiv reiterated its request for fighter jets last week after its European allies promised to send battle tanks. In a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov urged Paris to assist in training Ukrainian pilots on French fighters.

“First and foremost, fighter jets”

Ukraine has already received the Patriot, NASAMS, German Gepard, and the French Crotale air defense systems. Western fighter jets are the next step toward deterring Russian incursions and drone and missile strikes on major Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine’s Air Force spokesperson Colonel Yuri Ihnat announced that the Air Defence is preparing its infrastructures for the landing and hosting of Western fighters, which require a special runway surface.

Several European and American officials have recently stated that sending fighter jets to Ukraine is no longer off the table. According to many experts, the following Western jets could be real game changers in favor of Ukraine:

  • American F-16
  • French Mirage 2000C
  • Swedish Gripen.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not rule out sending fighter jets to Ukraine but warned against an escalation of the conflict.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that Poland could only provide F-16s to Ukraine in collaboration with other NATO allies. Poland had planned to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, but the USA reportedly scuppered this deal. Apart from the MiG-29s used in the Ukrainian Air Force, the Polish Air Force owns 48 F-16s soon to be phased out in favor of the fifth-generation F-35 fighter, opening up the possibility of an early delivery.

F16 combat fighter jet to ukraine
The American F-16 fighter jet is Ukraine’s aircraft of choice, but a line of other jets could fit the role as well. Credit: Wikimedia commons

However, the supply of fighter jets continues to create disagreement among Ukraine’s allies. US President Joe Biden stood firm on sending F-16s to Ukraine. “No,” he replied to a journalist who asked him the question during a briefing on Monday at the White House.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz follows the position of his American counterpart. According to him, the “question does not even arise.”

Why does Ukraine need fighter jets?

First and foremost, Ukraine needs fighter jets because they are a precondition for Ukraine to regain its territorial integrity.

Combat jets play a crucial multifold role in combat operations, as modern warfare abides by the concept of Air Surface Integration. This strategy involves combining the operational activities of air and ground assets to fully exploit joint complementarities to improve the effectiveness of operations at the strategic level.

Second, Ukraine needs fighter jets simply because its aviation capabilities are vastly outnumbered by Russia’s.

Until now, Russia has not been able to establish air superiority above Ukraine, as its Soviet-era jets, S-300 air defense systems combined with western MANPADS stopped Russian jets from coming too far into Ukraine. However, this might change as the Ukrainian jets wear out from combat and its air defense runs out of ammunition. Therefore, Ukraine’s park of combat aircraft needs urgent reinforcements.

What would Ukraine use western combat jets for?

In modern warfare, fighter jets perform many different tasks. In addition to direct air combat with enemy fighters, they are used to strike ground and sea targets. They are involved in air defense breaching operations, reconnaissance, and interception of cruise missiles, drones, and bombers.

Therefore, with new fighter jets, Kyiv would expand and diversify its defense capabilities, complicating Russian air strikes and assisting its own ground forces on the frontline.

The type and configuration of the aircraft that Ukraine receives depend on which of these tasks will be prioritized, as they may have different onboard weapons control systems, radars, and other technical features that determine their specialization.

Although there is no precise information on how Ukraine intends to use the fighter jets, officials have dropped several hints as to what these tasks might be.

1. Intercepting missiles and drones

Since the start of Russia’s full-blown invasion, Ukrainian jets have been actively shooting down Russian cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.

The Ukrainian press reported on a military pilot who allegedly shot down five such drones in a MiG-29 on October 12 but crashed. The pilot survived.

Although Ukraine has set up a tiered air defense system, no missile defense system can completely cover a country its size.

Missile and drone attacks on critical infrastructure remain one of the most important problems for Ukrainians in this war, and additional fighters would be useful in the air defense system.

2. Hitting Russian ground targets

According to Zelenskyy’s advisor Mykhailo Podoliak, Ukraine needs fighter jets to strike ground targets, particularly depots of ammunition for Russian cannon artillery – the key tool of the Russian army.

Supporting this use is the United States’ announcement in late December that it will transfer to Ukraine JDAM kits to turn unguided air-launched bombs into guided munitions, which makes them highly accurate. At the time, a Pentagon spokesman refused to answer journalists’ questions about how the Ukrainian Army could use them, citing the secrecy of this information.

The mere presence of such strike weapons shows that ground targets may have become one of the priority targets for the Ukrainian Air Force. With combat jets, Ukraine could attack Russian strongholds from the air in support of Ukrainian ground forces. They can also launch precise attacks against stationary and moving targets, including military installations, that would be too risky or difficult to reach from the ground.

Both F-16s and Gripen aircraft can use JDAMs.

3. Penetrating Russian air defense

According to BBC, which cites the Air Force Magazine, Ukrainian pilots told in July 2022 that the main reason they would like to receive the F-16 is the aircraft’s ability to perform Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions.

One-quarter of American combat sorties in recent conflicts have been such SEAD missions, which include suppression of the enemy’s surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, early warning radars, and other communication systems.

The F-16 lineup also includes CJ and DJ series aircraft equipped for such missions. They use special weapon control systems that include AGM-88 HARM missiles aimed at a radar source. Ukraine would probably need such aircraft for its SEAD missions.

However, Ukraine is already using these missiles, which the United States began supplying in the fall, hoisting them on MiG-29s. BBC reports that these missiles are the main weapon for strikes against air defense systems.

What fighter jets could be delivered to Ukraine?

Mirage 2000

French Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000B (522/115-OV) taxis to the runway at the 2010 Royal International Air Tattoo, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England. combat fighter jets to UKraine
French Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000B (522/115-OV) taxis to the runway at the 2010 Royal International Air Tattoo, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England.

Following Emmanuel Macron’s statements, the idea of a potential Mirage 2000 delivery has arisen. The Mirage 2000 has proven to be an effective and highly maneuverable fighter jet in several conflicts, including the Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom. It has also been improved throughout the years to keep up with the competition.

Having been withdrawn from French Air Force service in June 2022, 11 Mirage 2000Cs may be transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Their short-range missile and cannon would allow Ukraine’s army to carry out drone interception missions. The latter can also carry unguided bombs, essential for assisting troops on the ground.

But, the potential delivery of Mirage 2000C might not be considered a real game changer in this conflict. This fighter might not be a real competitor for the Russian Su-35S, even though pilots’ skills play a massive role in the case of a “dogfight,” an air battle between fighter jets.

As well, it does not come with long-range missiles. It can be equipped with a Super 350D missile with a maximum range of 40 kilometers, while other and more recent fighter jets, such as the F-16 or the Gripen, can be outfitted with long-range missiles.

However, the Mirage 2000C could play a decisive role in the interception of drones, especially following the repeated use of Iranian-made Shaed-136 drones against Ukraine’s vital infrastructure and population.

F-16

Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Fighting Falcon. Author: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong. combat jets to Ukraine
Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Fighting Falcon. Author: US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong.

Ukraine’s jet of choice, the US-made F-16s, has been produced on a larger scale than the Mirages and was exported to many of Ukraine’s partners.

Being able to compete with Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighters, the F-16s have modern navigation systems that allow them to identify their targets with pinpoint accuracy and a sophisticated missile defense system that can reduce losses and enhance aircraft durability.

They also wield long-range missiles that would allow Ukraine to launch much-needed distant attacks on targets.

Additionally, the communications systems of these aircraft are easier interconnected with the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ command structure.

Overall, the F-16 is a powerful and versatile fighter jet widely used by militaries worldwide. Its advanced avionics, maneuverability, and weapons capabilities make it an ideal choice for air combat and air support operations.

Apart from the United States, the Netherlands possesses F-16s and is replacing them with more sophisticated F-35s. Last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra stated that the Netherlands would evaluate any request to supply F-16s with an “open mind” and that there were “no taboos” about military support.

Aside from the Netherlands, seven other European NATO countries, including Norway, Poland, and Romania, fly F-16s.

Despite the United States’ and Germany’s initial statements, Frank St John, chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin, stated during an interview with the Financial Times that the F-16s’ manufacturer was “going to be ramping production on F-16s in Greenville, South Carolina.“

Are we going to follow the same process as with the Leopards, which eventually were delivered despite initial refusals?

Saab JAS 39 Gripen

A Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets to Ukraine
A Swedish JAS-39 Gripen returns to the play areas of the Arctic Challenge exercise on Sept. 24, 2013, over Norway, after taking on fuel from a US Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker.

Recently, the idea around the Saab JAS 39 Gripen also started making its way among Ukraine’s allies. The Gripen fighter jet is a single-engine multi-role combat aircraft developed by the Swedish aerospace company Saab. It is outfitted with various modern sensors and electronic countermeasures that enable it to identify and track targets at great distances.

It is also very agile and has low observability making it an excellent air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft. One of Gripen’s main advantages is its simplicity of maintenance. This aircraft is also designed to take off from less-than-ideal airfields, which is of major interest to the Ukrainian Air Force and the economic cost of adapting the runways.

However, there aren’t any immediate intentions to deliver Gripen to Ukraine, Swedish Defense Minister Paul Johnson stated in an interview with Politico.

Panavia Tornado

Looking for the most convenient supply, Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk called on Berlin to hand over the Panavia Tornado to Kyiv. Indeed, the German Air Force started phasing out their Tornado to replace them with the American F-35 fighter jets and could make them quickly available for the Ukrainian pilots. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ruled out the transfer of fighters to Ukraine.

A Panavia Tornado jet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Panavia Tornado jet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Faced with the possibility of a new large-scale Russian offensive, there is no time for further hesitation. Every kilometer ceded to the Russians is another kilometer of dictatorship and horror in Europe, while every kilometer recovered is another kilometer affirming the European fundamentals of freedom and peace.

Gabriel Kosiack

Gabriel Kosiack is currently studying Public Affairs at Sciences Po Rennes. He graduated in International Relations, and Defence at the University of Nice, France, and International Humanitarian Law at the IIHL in San Remo, Italy.

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