The situation in Ukraine is heartbreaking to watch. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a despotic thug, has launched headlong into an all-out invasion of that country, and his army is using Soviet-era tactics with little concern for collateral damage or civilian casualties.
Watching the carnage unfold in near real time is maddening and people around the world are calling for action. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for example, is pleading with the West to clear Ukrainian skies of Russian planes and take that absolute advantage away from Putin.
In other conflicts, the United States has dominated the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, giving us an incredible operational advantage. Ukraine presents an entirely different scenario.
Unlike the outdated jet fighters and air defense capabilities possessed by Third World adversaries, Putin’s arsenal of weapons includes a vast array of modern fighters, arguably the best surface-to-air missile system in the world, and thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
Putin would view an attempt to establish a no-fly zone as an act of war and begin using all conventional means at his disposal to defeat the effort, including SAMs based in the interior and outside. outside Ukraine.
Establishing a no-fly zone would require removing these systems, and once filming began there was no doubt that Allied casualties would be anything but insignificant.
Even if we could succeed and lock him up militarily, a cornered Putin would be more inclined to use nuclear weapons under his control. Commitment calculations are much more complicated and the stakes are much higher here than in any other operation we have executed since the end of the Cold War.
There is no doubt that those advocating a no-fly zone do not understand the risks – or the inherent escalation – that such an effort would entail. And while the United States would accept these risks to meet its commitment to NATO countries or to defend our vital national interests, the situation in Ukraine does not reach these thresholds.
Still, Zelenskyy needs our help, and with a no-fly zone on the table, giving Ukrainian pilots more fighter jets to use against the Russians seems like the best alternative. However, the complications of such a move are much more complicated than it seems.
Ukrainian fighter pilots fly MiG-29s and Su-27s, both primarily air-to-air fighters, as well as ground-attack Su-25s. While the transition to flying a different aircraft like the A-10 may seem easy, it’s anything but. Flying any modern fighter in a benign medium-altitude environment is easy by design, but the most capable jets at treetop level are incredibly demanding.
Electronic and radar countermeasures that aid pilots in defeating SAMs vary widely from fighter to fighter, as do jet handling characteristics. Pilots must know both so well that they don’t have to think about them when operating weapons near Russia’s best SAM system, the S-400.
Without further electronic warfare support, Ukrainian pilots must fly as low as possible to defeat this system. Successful use of “in the weeds” can only come from repetition and time in the air.
Training pilots on a new aircraft would take at least several weeks to acquire this kind of skill, but training maintenance technicians and weapons loaders in the use, maintenance and arming of these fighters would take several months or even longer. not have.
This narrows down ideas for offering fighters to just two – more MiG-29s and Su-25s, and there are several partner nations in the region currently flying these jets. Poland has around 28 MiG-29s, Slovakia seven and Bulgaria 13 MiG-29s and eight Su-25s.
On Tuesday, Poland announced its intention to transfer its fleet of MiG-29s to the United States by flying them to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. From there, the jets can be shipped or transported directly to Ukraine.
Once on the ground, Ukrainian Air Force maintenance and armament personnel can rotate the jets around without wasting time, and their pilots can begin operating them immediately. There’s no doubt that this deal includes a whole host of weapons and spare parts needed to keep those birds in the air, which is just as important.
Poland’s generous offer came with an encouragement for Slovakia and Bulgaria to follow suit, and while that sounds easy, giving up operational fighters in the face of a very real Russian threat is no small feat. deal, as any agreement to receive replacement aircraft will likely take years to come through, leaving an equally large capability gap for the donor country.
While Poland’s encouragement may lead Ukraine to even more MiG-29s, the weight of each nation’s decision will be significant and any nation choosing to donate its jets will likely request and receive acceptable security guarantees, such as the base of American combatants in the donor country.
Although this is a very important decision for Ukraine, the United States must continue to ship as many Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons as possible to help that country repel the Russians. It should also consider adding compatible SAM system components and replacement missiles for Ukraine’s S-300 SAM batteries, and giving them as much detailed real-time intelligence as possible.
While some may argue that intelligence sharing will compromise sources and methods, the State Department reportedly shared classified intelligence with China in a futile attempt to get Beijing to intervene with Russia ahead of its invasion. If we can do it with a peer adversary, why don’t we share it with our friends in Ukraine?
Do you have an opinion on this article ? To ring, please email [email protected] and we will consider publishing your amended remarks in our regular “We hear you” column. Don’t forget to include the URL or title of the article as well as your name and city and/or state.