Ukrainian pilot ‘Juice’ is only too aware of the limitations of the MiG-29 fighter jet when trying to intercept Russian missiles. The 40-year-old radar on his Soviet aircraft was not designed to detect cruise missiles or drones, he said. He couldn’t destroy any of them.
“It’s very sad to come back and land after such a hunting operation, understanding that prey flew to its target, destroyed buildings and even killed people – and you couldn’t help them “, said the 29-year-old pilot, who wanted to be identified only by his call sign, told the Financial Times in an interview.
Juice pleaded for Western allies to provide his country with modern fighter jets, explaining that Ukraine’s aging fleet was overtaken by Russia’s SU-35s and MiG-31s, which have air-to-air missiles with longer ranges and an upper radar.
“The situation with our aviation is getting worse every day,” Juice said.
As soon as Ukraine secured pledges of modern battle tanks from its Western allies last month, its military and political leaders turned their attention to fighter jets. Kyiv has for months pressed its NATO allies to supply Western planes, such as the US-built F-16, which are being gradually replaced by newer designs but are still more than a match for most Russian planes.
“What Ukraine needs are fourth-generation fighter jets,” said Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister.
So far, the main NATO powers have been reluctant to provide fighter jets, fearing that they will be too complicated for Ukrainian forces to quickly master and maintain and that they will push Russia to aggravate the conflict. But in some capitals, those assessments are changing.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said last month that the Netherlands would consider any request to send F-16s with “an open mind” and that there were “no taboos” on the military support. French President Emmanuel Macron also signaled that Paris would not rule out sending its own Mirage fighter jets.
“I hope that this red line – if it really exists, and I think it only exists in our heads – will also be crossed,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told local television on Monday.
But Ukraine’s biggest military backers aren’t yet convinced of the merits of supplying the jets or don’t have the models Ukraine wants. Britain, a tank forerunner, operates only Typhoons and F-35s and will not send any. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned of a “bidding war” for Western weaponry. When asked if the United States was ready to send F-16s, President Joe Biden answered with a resounding no.
Some Western officials have questioned whether fighter jets are a priority given that it takes at least six months to train pilots not only to fly the plane but also how to operate the weapons systems.
Since neither Ukraine nor Russia controls the skies, the role of aviation has played a lesser role in what is largely a ground war shaped by artillery. Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300 air defense system, supplemented by Western man-portable surface-to-air missiles, prevented Russian aircraft from venturing far into Ukrainian airspace.
Analysts say the big risk for Ukraine is that its air force – made up of dozens of MiG-29s, SU-27s, SU-24 bombers and SU-25 ground attack aircraft aging – be exhausted from combat by the time his air defenses work. out of ammunition.
If Russian planes could fly over Ukraine without serious risk of being shot down, they could hit Ukrainian troops, military installations and critical infrastructure.
“Our main task in this war is to deny Russia the ability to freely use its manned aviation in Ukrainian airspace,” said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Alas, the contested nature of Ukrainian airspace has been taken for granted by the West for far too long.”
Kyiv has a clear preference for the US-built F-16, which is operated by 30 nations, including eight European NATO members, offering a potential pool to draw from. The United States would have to grant permission to any country wishing to send F-16s to Ukraine, which Biden did not explicitly rule out.
“The reason the F-16 is the best option is that it can be used to cover ground operations on the front line,” Sak said. “It can be used as part of Ukraine’s air defense as they are effective in intercepting ballistic missiles and other flying objects that Russia uses to terrorize Ukraine.”
Analysts at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank suggested last year that Kyiv might be better off with the Swedish-built Gripens, a lighter, cheaper plane that might be easier to maintain and operate from several Ukrainian airfields. But these would have to be bought from the manufacturer and Sweden, whose application for NATO membership is blocked by Turkish objections, would have to agree.
Western fighter jets could give Ukraine greater capabilities, according to RUSI senior researcher Justin Bronk, but Russia’s formidable air defenses would force them to fly low for ground support missions, limiting their effectiveness.
Juice said the F-16 has better sensors, modern avionics and armament than any of the planes in the Ukrainian fleet, and could be used with missiles that have a longer range than enemy fire, helping to counter Russia’s superior jets. Ukraine could not afford to wait as it was losing its best pilots in combat.
“If we wait six more months, we will come to the time when we will only have reserve grandpas, not young drivers with good knowledge, good training.