London (CNN) In one of the most significant escalations of military aid to Ukraine from a NATO member since the Russian invasion, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday became the first leader of the security alliance to pledge fighter jets to Kiev.
Duda announced that four MiG-29 fighters will be handed over to Ukraine in the coming days – the rest, he said, are undergoing maintenance and are likely to be handed over sequentially. Four may seem like a modest number, but it’s a monumental step from a year ago, when it was politically unthinkable for a NATO member to send such sophisticated lethal aid to Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, this move was taken by Poland – a country with a pronounced fear of Russian expansionism fueled by deep historical experience of Russian aggression.
Will it make a difference? It certainly could be done politically. By normalizing such support, it could create a domino effect with more European countries continuing to supply fighter jets to Ukraine.
Less than a day after Poland’s pledge, Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced that his government would send a fleet of 13 MiG fighter jets to support the defense of Ukraine. It is likely that more European countries will follow suit and free up their Soviet-designed MiGs as they modernize their own air forces.
This is exactly what Poland is doing. Last year, the country signed a historic $14.5 billion defense deal with South Korea, which includes the purchase of 48 FA-50 light aircraft, and has also added US F-35 Lighting II stealth fighters to its fleet. Another practical advantage is that because many European countries have MIG-29s, their parts are more readily available for repair and maintenance of Ukrainian aircraft.
On the question of a military advantage, the Kremlin has been predictably dismissive, claiming that donating more Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine will not change the course of the conflict. That may be why F-16s – and not MiGs – are, in fact, at the top of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wish list.
For obvious reasons, the exact composition of Ukraine’s air force, most likely about a tenth the size of Russia’s, remains shrouded in secrecy. Ukraine inherited dozens of Soviet-made MiG-29 aircraft after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, about five years after they entered service. But the fleet took a hit after Russia illegally annexed Crimea.
MiG-29s are analog aircraft using older flight technology. Zelensky’s sought-after F-16s are digital. MiGs can be used for short combat missions, they can deploy weapons and shoot down Russian aircraft with good maneuverability at close range. But F-16s can fly longer, are more versatile, have integrated weapons systems, and have significantly better long-range and radar capabilities, allowing for better early warning.
Defense analyst Alex Walmsley, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, uses the analogy of comparing a 1990s laptop to the latest MacBook. Or a Ford Escort and a Porsche. Essentially they do the same thing — fly and launch missiles — but MIGs aren’t as responsive or powerful.”
The US has so far resisted calls to supply F-16s to Ukraine to avoid escalation with Russia and to be impracticable. The desire to prevent a catastrophic spillover of the conflict took center stage this week after the downing of a $32 million US Reaper drone over the Black Sea by a Russian fighter jet – the first time that Russian and US aircraft have been directly involved. contact since the beginning of the war. The potentially incendiary incident was seized by Russia as evidence of direct US involvement in the conflict.
Yet the shift from resistance to delivery has happened before; the US got around to supplying Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks after Germany reversed their own policy on Leopard II tanks.
But the impracticability argument is not just another political fig leaf. The Ukrainian Air Force already uses MiG jets so they can use them as soon as they arrive, whereas it would take months to train a MiG-29 pilot to a high level of comfort and efficiency on an F-16. Not to mention that Ukrainian pilots are scarce.
Retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling notes that while the Ukrainians have been very flexible in incorporating new equipment such as user-friendly Himars and Javelins, F-16s are a “whole different ball game”. They have different engine parts, designs and fire control systems for shooting and dropping bombs. “A lot of people want things to happen in Ukraine now,” says Hertling, “but without years of peacetime training and setting up support and recovery, you just don’t get the results you think you’re going to get.”
The initial commitments of jets will bolster Ukraine’s air defenses, but will in no way decisively change or give Ukraine an edge in the conflict. Former RAF F-16 fighter pilot William Gilpin tells CNN: “There’s a saying – if you’re a generation behind, there’s no point in showing up. Right now, the Ukrainian Air Force is a generation behind the Russians. The F-16 16’s would take them a generation ahead.”
This is the dilemma. It is clear that it is impractical to supply Ukraine with F-16 jets, which require a huge training load in the middle of an active conflict. But without them, gaining air superiority is beyond reach.