WASHINGTON: Since March, Ukraine has been pleading for Western fighter jets that could eventually replace the aging, worn-down MiG-29s and Su-27s that have been lost in combat. Now, it finally appears that the US Air Force may be willing to transfer some of its unused jets and begin training Ukrainian pilots.
The United States and its NATO allies are beginning to examine whether to potentially train Ukrainian air force pilots, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told Reuters ahead of the Aspen Security Forum.
“You want to build a long-term plan on how do you build their air force and the air force that they’re going to need for the future,” he said. During the event, Brown added that Ukraine’s future combat aircraft would be “something non-Russian,” and while it could be a US-made platform, it could also be an aircraft made by one of Europe’s fighter manufacturers.
“There’s US[-made aircraft]. There’s Gripen out of Sweden, there’s the Eurofighter, there’s the Rafale [from France],” he said. “There’s a number of different platforms that could go to Ukraine.”
Later that afternoon, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was asked a related question at the forum: If the US Air Force is allowed to divest some of its A-10 Warthog ground attack planes, would it be open to transferring them to the Ukrainian air force?
“That’s largely up to Ukraine,” Kendall said. “There are a number of international opportunities that are possible there. Older US systems are a possibility. And so as Ukraine… tries to sort out what its future will be longer term, we’ll be open to discussions with them about what their requirements are and how we might be able to satisfy them, but there are a number of possibilities.”
Ultimately, the decision to send combat aircraft to Ukraine rests with the White House, which has previously rebuffed the idea. However, Kendall and Brown’s comments represent a massive shift in tone for Air Force leadership, which has previously shown little support for calls from US lawmakers and Ukrainian military officials to consider providing US aircraft to Ukraine, and could potentially signal that the White House is also becoming more amenable to the proposition.
In March, after several former US officials wrote op-eds calling for the Air Force to hand its A-10s to Ukraine, Kendall told Breaking Defense, “I’m not aware of any current plan, or even any discussion of a current plan to field or provide A-10s to the Ukrainians.” Brown later added that he was also unaware of discussions on transferring the A-10 to Ukraine, seemingly ending the matter.
However, the Air Force was later tasked with exploring the logistics of such a transfer after a congressional inquiry was made, said Kelli Seybolt, deputy secretary of the Air Force for international affairs. At the time, the administration had prioritized sending arms to Ukraine which could be immediately used in the ongoing fight, and transferring the A-10 appeared a much slower and more laborious process.
“Never have we exported an A-10, for one,” she told reporters July 16 on the sidelines of the Royal International Air Tattoo. “We would have had to work through some policy hurdles, which we probably could get through. But really, it’s not something that would happen fast, because all of the training that would be required to bring those pilots up to a capability to really employ it. And then on top of that, there of course were the political questions about whether that was what we wanted to do.”
Is It Too Late To Send Planes?
While the A-10 now appears a viable choice for Ukraine, the F-16C/D may be a better option due to the speed at which it can be adopted, said John Venable, a former F-16 pilot currently with the Heritage Foundation. The US Air Force is currently in the process of getting rid of 47 F-16C/Ds, a proposal approved by Congress as part of the fiscal 2022 budget.
That means excess flyable F-16s would soon be available for Ukraine, in contrast to other options that could take longer, such as reviving old aircraft from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that would need to be put back into flying condition, or waiting for the 21 A-10s that will likely be retired once the FY23 defense policy bill is approved.
“Those airplanes have not been packaged for storage,” Venable said of the F-16s. “Little would have to be done, other than to give them spare parts and training on how to fly and maintain those jets.”
And while the A-10 would serve well providing close air support to Ukrainian troops on the front lines waging an artillery battle with Russia, the F-16 would be able to take on air interdiction missions for which the Warthog isn’t optimized, flying behind enemy lines and bombing staging areas where vehicles, munitions and other equipment are being stored, he said.
Larry Stutzriem, a retired Air Force two-star and former A-10 pilot currently with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, had a more fatalistic outlook on the situation in Ukraine.
“We’ve missed a window of opportunity to send the A-10 to Ukraine. It’s almost too late,” he said. “The Russians have become very smart. They’ve moved their S-300s and other air defense systems into Ukraine. … The time to send in A-10s or a bunch of F-16s — fourth generation fighters — was back when we saw those 50 kilometer long backups of Russian vehicles.”
That doesn’t mean that the US government should refrain from sending aircraft to Ukraine, but it means that the current state of play is much more contested and dangerous than it was in the early days of the war, Stutzriem said. Simply sending combat jets to Ukraine will not be enough to change the tide of battle; the US and its allies need to be prepared to train Ukrainian pilots how to wage an air campaign where pilots “have high leverage in terms of identifying critical targets that can really blunt and slow” the Russian military and aren’t simply acting as a “support piece to the Ukrainian army” in a war of attrition, he said.
“This is a really good time to look at unmanned aircraft,” he said. “Don’t put pilots at risk. Flood them with either [MQ-1C] Gray Eagles or MQ-9s, and be willing to lose them.”
And if the Pentagon does decide to send manned fighters like the F-16 to Ukraine, it needs to ensure those jets come equipped with adequate defensive systems and examine whether additional capabilities like jamming, decoys or ISR are needed to ensure those platforms can be survivable in a battlefield permeated with Russian surface-to-air missile systems, Stutzriem said.
Time To Train
The Ukrainian air force has previously said fourth-generation fighters — specifically the F-16 or F-15 — would be “sufficient” to compete against Russia’s more advanced air force. During a June trip to Washington DC, two Ukrainian fighter pilots — known by their callsigns “Juice” and “Moonfish” — expressed confidence that pilots could become proficient on the F-16 in less than a year.
We have not received the tools we need to defend our sky and achieve victory.
In the sky, the greatest need is for fighter jets – F-15s and F-16s of the fourth generation or higher would be sufficient; 🇺🇦 pilots can learn to fly these with just 2-3 weeks of training. (12/16)
— Ukrainian Air Force (@KpsZSU) March 31, 2022
“We are ready to do [the training] more intensively,” Juice said during a roundtable with reporters, adding that one way to speed up training would be to have different groups of pilots specialize in different mission sets.
“We need suppression of enemy air defense capability. We need air-to-ground capability and the [biggest] priority is air-to-air capability,” Juice said. “So we could set different groups for each capability and it would be shorter, like a small course for each group. And I believe that we could do it pretty fast.”
Contrary to Stutzriem’s belief that drones would be the smartest, safest choice for Ukraine now, the two pilots were explicit that they wanted manned jets and not the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, which they said would be too easily shot down by Russian forces.
Venable said it might be possible to train a capable MiG-29 pilot the fundamentals of operating an F-16 — including how to control the F-16, basic fighter tactics for the platform, and how to employ munitions — within three to four months. The more difficult piece would be training Ukrainian maintainers on how to repair and sustain F-16s that are being flown hard in battle, and establishing a logistics workforce to manage spare parts, fuel and other necessities.
“Unless you’ve got a contractor who was willing to go into an active combat zone with a team of maintainers that were already proficient on the aircraft, barring that, you’re looking at a year to year and a half before Ukraine can begin using these aircraft,” Venable said.