Now that a decent supply of Western tanks and IFVs are soon to be sent to Ukraine, there’s talk about sending Western aircraft. Even if this is true, the earliest any Western aircraft would appear in Ukrainian hands is mid-summer or fall. Should this be a priority now? To begin the discussion, we’ll start with some twitter musings of Justin Bronk (@Justin_Br0nk), the Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at RUSI in London, and the Editor of the RUSI Defense Systems online journal. His areas of expertise include the modern combat air environment, Russian and Chinese ground-based air defenses and fast jet capabilities, the air war during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, unmanned combat aerial vehicles and novel weapons technology. He’s not a military man, but what the hell. RUSI also has a longer article on the air war in Ukraine.
Since the Dutch F-16 announcement has generated more talks on fighters for Ukraine; a few thoughts.
The Ukrainian Air Force would absolutely benefit greatly from Western fighters in terms of air-to-air and (potentially) air-to-ground lethality. But there are caveats. Any western fighters that could plausibly be sent would still be at high risk from Russian SAMs, so would have to fly at very low altitudes within several tens of kilometres of the frontlines. This would dramatically reduce effective missile range and limit strike options. Most common Western close-air-support weapons like Paveway II and AGM-65 Maverick require the pilot or a JTAC to use a targeting pod or other sensor to find, ID and designate the target for precision strikes. This sort of CAS is far harder when confined to very low level.
Stand-off weapons like AGM-154 JSOW, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb or AGM-158 JASSM are (broadly) designed to hit fixed targets. Glide weapons are also dependent on altitude and speed of the launch aircraft for range so would be more constrained from low altitude launches. So while Western fighters with stand-off weapons would offer Ukraine an improved capability to destroy fixed Russian targets near the frontlines from a safer distance, they would be adding to existing strike options like HIMARS and drawing from limited stockpiles.
Air-to-air, altitude constraints due to Russian SAMs also apply. Western fighters would offer much better range if supplied with latest AIM-120C/D or (ideally) Meteor than Mig-29/Su-27 with R-27R/ER. But handicapped by firing from low and slow compared to Russian fighters. As such, only Meteor would likely provide an absolute effective range advantage over R-37M carried by high-altitude Su-35S and Mig-31BM CAPs. Supplying these weapons would help the Ukrainian Air Force a great deal, but they are sensitive and available in very limited numbers.
So; Western fighters will undoubtedly provide a major boost to Ukrainian Air Force survivability and air-to-air lethality against the Russian VKS once supplied. However, they would still be at risk from Russia’s SAM systems, and have limited dynamic ground attack options. Furthermore, they must disperse with a minimal visible ground operations and logistics footprint to avoid focused Russian missile strikes on airbases. This mediates in favour of Gripen or F-18 as types able to operate from rough, short fields with compact support equipment.
These considerations matter because Western capacity is not limitless. Logistics, training and personnel working on jets for Ukraine is capacity not used for other things like SAMs, vehicles, ammunition. The question is should this be the priority now, or should it wait?
Comment: I have no doubt that Ukraine will eventually possess a NATO compatible air force with Western aircraft and weapons systems. Sure we should be training Ukrainian pilots and maintenance personnel, but I think this is a case of trying to drain the swamp when you’re up to your ass in alligators. What Ukraine needs now is a concentrated effort to finish all that’s needed to create a Ukrainian Army combined arms force capable of serious offensive operations by spring.
To complete that combined arms force, the Ukrainians need more artillery and more ammunition. We should also get the ATACMS in country as soon as possible and send the ground launched small diameter bomb (GLSDB) as soon as they can be assembled in reasonable numbers. They’ve already been tested by SAAB and Boeing. The components are available and can be in the hands of Ukrainian HIMARS crews by spring. The GLSDB has a range of 150 km rather than the ATACMS 300 km, but the cost difference is great. The GLSDB costs $40k each compared to a million dollars for an ATACMS.
Oh yes, let’s not forget A2/AD. The Ukrainians need every system capable of shooting down Russian missiles, drones and aircraft now. That includes what combat ready MiG-29s are still sitting on European airfields.