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MSC: Decision on western fighter jets for Ukraine?

February 17, 2023

Kyiv is already preparing runways for the western planes, which could prove decisive in the war against Russia. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Poland will push for a decision to deliver F-16s.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Britain for fighter jet deliveriesImage: Victoria Jones/PA via AP/picture alliance

The desperate call has rung out from Kyiv since the first hours of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022: "Close our sky," the people in Ukraine continue to plead. But a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, such as the one over Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war there in the 1990s, has been categorically ruled out by the countries supporting Ukraine, first and foremost the US.

Such an operation would draw the western alliance into the war. And that should be avoided at all costs. Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reformulated the call to close the sky during his speech to the UK parliament: "Give us wings," was his new plea — by which he meant fighter jets to enable Ukrainian pilots to secure the country's airspace.

US-financed pilot training

The US House of Representatives already approved $100 million (€94 million) to fund the training of Ukrainian pilots for US-made F-16 fighter jets in July 2022. Shortly after the Russian invasion began, Poland delivered old Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force. According to Warsaw, they were to be used for spare parts.

Further deliveries of MiG fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots are used to, have not been ruled out. However, after a year of the war, they would no longer help his country much, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat told DW: "Soviet aircraft will not be able to change the course of the war now."

According to him, the MiGs could only replenish the small fleet of aircraft remaining in Ukraine "with spare parts, armament, maybe missiles." They would not be much help against the air superiority of the Russian attackers.

"We must switch to Western aircraft," Ignat analyzed, otherwise Ukraine will remain "technologically inferior" to Russia. In their old Soviet jets with outdated radar, Ukrainian pilots could not know when a missile had been fired at them, the spokesman for the Ukrainian air force said.

Ben Hodges: West should send Ukraine fighter jets

The main problem, however, is that Russian military jets have meanwhile been firing their missiles at Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians from a safe distance. That is because of the western military equipment Ukraine has received over the past 11 months: anti-aircraft tanks such as the Gepards from Germany seem to have kept the Russian planes at bay.

Map from November 2022 showing Russian-held and regained Ukrainian territory
By November, Ukraine had regained some territory

"Russia has adjusted to the range available to it in Ukraine," Nico Lange, a security analyst with the Munich Security Conference (MSC) told DW. The expert on Ukraine pointed to the Russian-occupied so-called land bridge to and from Crimea, the peninsula which was annexed by Moscow in 2014. "Especially in the south, where a relatively small strip is controlled by Russia," the Kremlin forces maintain "valuable command and control infrastructure, as well as logistical infrastructure, outside of the Ukrainian range."

To have any chance of liberating occupied areas, Lange said, Ukrainian forces needed more range, to prepare the battlefield for an attack to free the territory. That was also emphasized by the former commanding general of the US Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, in an interview with DW about the Ukrainian forces: "The sooner that we deliver them the capability to achieve a decisive outcome, the sooner that this [war] can be over."

Hodges called for fighter jets to be delivered quickly to Ukraine and has for many months also advocated for them to receive long-range missiles. His reasoning: This would allow the Ukrainian forces to first attack the supply lines between the front and the Ukrainian coast on the Sea of Azov and, after successfully recapturing this area, then attack the bridge between the Russian mainland and Crimea. The peninsula would then be cut off from Russian supplies.

Poland wants a decision at the Munich Security Conference

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, the Polish government is pushing for a decision to deliver western fighter jets to Ukraine. Warsaw's ambassador in Berlin called for this at the beginning of February in an interview with the German media group Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND). For weeks, both Poland and the Netherlands have not ruled out the delivery of the NATO F-16 fighter jets.

But analysts also continue to discuss other western aircraft. That includes the Gripen fighter jets made by Swedish weapons maker Saab, which have been built since the mid-1990s. The Gripen planes "would suit our climate," Yuriy Ignat from the Ukrainian air force told DW. But a "switch to Gripen could take decades."

Why Ukraine is pleading for Western fighter jets

In January, French President Emmanuel Macron also did not rule out supplying the similarly new French Rafale jets. These machines are "one of the most expensive aircraft in the world," said Ignat, asking "how many could be delivered, and who would pay for them?"

New runways for western jets

More than 4,000 F-16 fighter jets have been produced, the Ukrainian air force spokesman observed. "More than 20 countries are using this jet," said Ignat: "It is also clear who can give us these planes; which countries, and how many." That is why he thinks these Cold War-era machines are "the best candidate for Ukraine."

He is convinced that his pilots could be flying these western fighter jets in Ukraine in six months — preparations at ground level are already being made. According to Ignat, Ukrainian builders are already working on new runways at various airfields and converting roads to accommodate the F-16. The Western jet could be damaged by the old Soviet-era concrete runways, unlike the old MiG-29.

This article was originally written in German.