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The EU Wants to Give Ukraine Fighter Jets to Battle Russia: Will It Make a Difference?

Russian Su-25s. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On Sunday, the European Union raised the possibility of transferring fighter aircraft to Ukraine. By Sunday evening the EU had apparently, and against all odds, committed to the scheme. NATO and EU countries have already committed to the transfer of huge amounts of military equipment to Ukraine, but sending fighters is something altogether different; jet fighters are remarkably complex machines that require substantial skill and training for both pilots and aircrews.

Could the EU pull this off, and would it make a difference?

Can the EU Really Send Fighter Jets to Ukraine? 

Europe has a lot of different kinds of fighters, and generally speaking, isn’t shy about selling them. However, in the short term there are only a few older aircraft that Ukraine might find useful.

The most likely aircraft available for transfer would be MiGs and Sukhois of types already operated by the Ukrainian military. Ukrainian pilots and maintainers would have familiarity with these aircraft, spare parts would likely be available, and the planes would reduce escalation risks insofar as Russia would be less likely to mistake them for NATO aircraft.

While there may be some Ukrainian pilots who have experience with the MiG-21, Ukraine has not operated the type recently. This leaves the MiG-29 and the Su-25, the former an air superiority fighter and the latter an attack aircraft, and makes Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland the most likely donors. The aircraft operated by these countries have undergone significant upgrades to bring them to NATO standards, but remain similar enough to Ukrainian models to at least make a transfer imaginable.

Of course, if Ukraine and the transferring country could also work out a way to lend pilots and maintainers, the problem would become much less difficult.

Sending Fighter Planes to Ukraine: Historical Parallels

The transfer of aircraft (and potentially pilots) into a conflict zone is nothing new.

The most famous (to Americans, anyway) example of such a transfer came with the “Flying Tigers,” a group of American pilots who flew aircraft that the United States had transferred to China in the early years of the Sino-Japanese War. Then as now, the transfer of aircraft and pilots allowed the United States to participate in a conflict while managing the risks of escalation; Japan wasn’t happy with the Flying Tigers, but it wasn’t going to war over that issue alone.

And the Flying Tigers are hardly the only example. Volunteer pilots flew on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, in the Battle of Britain, in the Israeli War of Independence, and others. Mercenary pilots made themselves available across a range of conflicts in Africa, and have also appeared in the Middle East. In the Korean War and the War of Attrition, Soviet pilots joined the fray against the Americans and Israelis respectively, making sure to maintain plausible deniability while lending assistance to Moscow’s clients.


But of course, modern jet fighters (even of 1980s vintage) are monstrously more complex to keep in the air than the P-40s the Flying Tigers flew or even the third generation aircraft that participated in Middle Eastern wars.

As noted above, all of the aircraft operated by NATO countries have been upgraded with various weapons and electronics. It took the owners weeks and months to train pilots and maintainers, although admittedly this could be telescoped somewhat by a concerted effort. And if the pilots and aircrew come with the aircraft in some kind of volunteer scheme, the old plans could certainly be put into the fight in short order.

Lurking in the background of this proposal is the fact that the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKD) have performed dismally thus far.  As of the fourth day of the war the Russians had not committed substantial fixed-wing aircraft to combat, despite having massive advantages in numbers and sophistication.

The reasons for this reticence remain unclear, especially given that Russian aircraft and pilots have gained experience over the last six years serving in the Syrian Civil War. The reticence has allowed Ukrainian aerial forces several notable successes against Russian ground forces, and purportedly some success in air combat missions. But the potential impact of the substantial Russian aerial arsenal looms large, probably quite a bit larger than the scheme the EU is imagining.

Against this backdrop, it’s hard to imagine that the transfer of a few aging jets to Ukraine will make much of a difference. Su-25s could certainly inflict severe damage on Russian mechanized columns operating in the open, but would be vulnerable to SAMs (indeed, reports suggest Su-25s have already been lost performing such strikes). Any jets that Ukraine begins to operate would run the risk of being utterly swamped by the much larger fleet of Russian fighters. Moreover, it’s likely that if Ukrainian aircraft began to make a serious impact on the fighting, their airbases would come under concerted attack from long-range Russian missiles.

What Happens Now? 

This is an audacious proposal and one that speaks to the transformation in European security outlook that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has wrought. The idea of EU countries transferring aircraft to Ukraine in order to kill Russians would have been unimaginable only a few days ago. Now, NATO and EU countries are sending all kinds of equipment to Ukraine, and Russia doesn’t seem to be able to do anything to stop it. Ultimately, however, this is probably more about Europe demonstrating its commitment than about affecting the course of the fight in Ukraine.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.