Ukraine Needs Missiles, Not Jet Fighters – As Ukraine fights for its life against Russian aggression, there is a long list of items that would be useful: anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, small arms and ammunition, body armor, night-vision gear, and so on.
But jet fighters? That’s not what Ukraine needs.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says otherwise: he has been asking Ukraine’s NATO allies – including a plea to the U.S. Congress — to supply his nation with jets to even the odds against Russia’s far stronger air force. Plans to transfer aircraft to Ukraine have been mooted since Russia invaded on February 24. The European Union was going to send aircraft – and then it wasn’t. Poland was going to send MiG-29 fighters – but only if the U.S. replaces them with F-16s.
That other nations don’t seem enthusiastic about the idea is the first clue that jets aren’t must-have weapons for Ukraine. There are several drawbacks to the proposal.
As a former part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s military is still largely equipped with and trained to use, Soviet arms. For senior Ukrainian commanders, their formative military years would have been spent learning how to destroy NATO planes, not fly them. Transferring Western models such as F-16s, or European Typhoon fighters, would require time to train pilots and integrate these unfamiliar aircraft – as well as their munitions — into the Ukrainian air force and air defense system.
NATO’s Eastern European members have old Soviet-era equipment that they’re junking: Poland has MiG-29s as does Romania, which still flies Israeli-modernized MiG-21s. Poland now flies F-16s, and Romania is slated to get them as well. But as neighbors to Russia or to Russia’s ally Belarus, where Moscow has stationed troops, they have good reason to fear either overt or covert Russian retaliation.
But even from Ukraine’s perspective, jets would be a mixed blessing. True, Russian airpower in Ukraine has proved a disappointment. The Kremlin – and some Western observers – had trumpeted what was supposed to be the Russian Air Force 2.0, that had shaken off its post-Soviet doldrums and employed a new generation of sophisticated aircraft, smart bombs and doctrine in Syria. But Russian airpower has neither operated in quantity or quality over Ukraine. Despite superior numbers and newer equipment versus Ukraine, the Russian Air Force has not been able to achieve air superiority by eliminating Ukraine’s air force and air defenses, or provide decisive close air support as the Luftwaffe inflicted on the Red Army in 1941.
Yet this doesn’t mean that Russian airpower is toothless, or that it won’t adapt and learn and from its mistakes. Fighters like MiG-29s and F-16s need airbases to operate from, with proper runways and adequate maintenance facilities and depots. Russia claims that its long-range missiles disabled Ukraine’s Starokostiantyniv airbase on March 6. Whether that’s actually true is immaterial: Russia has a huge arsenal of Iskander and other ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 bombers with air-launched missiles. There are questions about whether Russia is depleting its stockpile of precision-guided munitions, but even so, Russia should be able to neutralize Ukrainian airbases over time. This would either ground Ukraine’s air force, or send it fleeing to neighboring countries. But how eager will Poland be to provide sanctuary for Ukrainian aircraft attacking Russian troops? China provided sanctuary for MiG-15 fighters during the Korean War, which the U.S. Air Force didn’t bomb for fear of provoking World War III. Vladimir Putin may have fewer scruples.
Perhaps the biggest question is how sending jets to Ukraine will fit into a peace deal. Ukraine has every right to repel aggression and to have its own air force. But the fact is that Ukraine is too weak to drive the Russians off Ukrainian soil, NATO is not going to send troops into Ukraine for fear of triggering World War III, and there will have to be a negotiated end to the conflict. Western aid, notably the anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles that have proven deadly against Russian vehicles and aircraft, can be portrayed as defensive weapons.
But jet fighters? Those are powerful, high-prestige systems that can project power hundreds or thousands of miles away. Though Ukraine is not a NATO member, Putin is already convinced that Ukraine is a potential NATO dagger aimed at Russia. Paranoid as that may be, more Ukrainian combat aircraft will only stoke his fear that Russia is the nation that is really endangered. Ukraine will have to live with the consequences.
A seasoned defense and national security writer and expert, Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.