Here Are The Options For The EU’s Initiative To Restock Ukraine With Fighter Jets (Updated)
A few EU countries still have jets similar to ones that Ukraine flies, which would allow them to be rushed into combat.
In a major development with regards to the conflict in Ukraine, a top European Union official says that the bloc is now working to facilitate the delivery of fighter jets to the country as it continues to resist a full-on Russian invasion. Additional combat aircraft could be especially valuable for the Ukrainians, who have been able to prevent Russian from gaining air superiority, so far, but have suffered losses over the course of the fighting. You can get fully up to speed on the latest news on the conflict in our most recent rolling coverage here.
Josep Borrell, a Spanish politician currently serving as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and as Vice-President of the European Commission, announced earlier today that the bloc would provide funding for Ukraine to purchase fighter jets from unspecified member states. While he did not identify what types of aircraft might be headed to Ukraine in the near future, he did indicate that they would be ones that the Ukrainian Air Force already operates, which would help get them into combat faster. This is just one part of a larger military assistance package valued at 450 million Euros, or just over $501 million at the rate of conversion at the time of writing.
The Ukrainian Air Force's fighter fleets consist of a mixture of Soviet-designed MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-27 Flankers, as you can read more about here. No country within the European Union operates Su-27s.
This would suggest that the transfer of MiG-29s has been a central topic of discussion. Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria all still fly Fulcrum variants, which could be transferred and put into service very quickly. While the Bulgarian jets have seen some modest improvements since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Polish and Slovakian jets have been significantly upgraded.
Other EU member states previously flew MiG-29s and may still have some in storage, but how long it might take to get them operational again would likely make them less attractive options. Still, they could possibly serve as spares resources, especially seeing that a number of Ukrainian MiG-29s which may have been unflyable, got destroyed in a Russian strike.
Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria have the additional benefit of being NATO members who are in the process of replacing their MiG-29 fleets. However, Poland is due to get the first of its new F-35A Joint Strike Fighters until 2024, while Slovakia and Bulgaria are set to begin receiving their new F-16C/Ds in 2023 and 2025, respectively.
At the same time, those countries could mitigate any national security risks from losing the air defense capabilities offered by these jets by asking other NATO members to help guard their airspace in the interim. Countries from the alliance already provide this added defensive capacity to the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which do not have any combat jets of their own, as well as in the Black Sea region. Beyond that, American fighters, as well as those from other NATO nations, are already flying enhanced patrols along the alliance's eastern flank as a part of buildup in response to the conflict in Ukraine. At the same time, this might also mean there will be a need to remove certain sensitive NATO-standard gear from these jets before they could be turned over to Ukraine.
Romania and Croatia, which are also NATO members, fly older, deeply upgraded MiG-21 variants that might be on the table, which could still be formidable adversaries in aerial combat. Ukraine does not currently fly the MiG-21 operationally, but companies in the country perform depot maintenance on them for other countries. This would still seem less likely than the transfer of MiG-29s. The same goes for Poland's aging fleet of Su-22 swing-wing combat jets, though these types might become more attractive if the conflict grinds on.
Borrell may have been using a more generic form of the term "fighter jets" and the European Union could be looking to supply Ukraine with other combat jets, as well. Bulgaria still flies Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft, another type that is also currently in Ukrainian service and is relevant to the conflict.
This is all in addition to a growing array of weapons and other military aid that various European countries, as well as the United States, have delivered or are planning to in the future. This has included a shipment of air-to-air missiles for Ukraine's existing fighter jets, according to the country's armed forces.
Regardless of what specific types of aircraft the European Union is looking at transferring now, any additional and relatively modern combat jets are likely to be welcome additions to the Ukrainian Air Force's fleets, which have suffered significant losses already in the past four days. This includes some Ukrainian aircraft that have been destroyed in missile strikes on various bases.
Ukrainian fighters, as well as ground-based air defenses, have shot down a number of Russian aircraft, too. This is what gave birth to the urban legend about a Ukrainian super ace, dubbed the Ghost of Kyiv, that you can read more about here.
Ukrainian fighters, together with other elements of the country's air force, such as Turkish-made TB2 armed drones, and air defenders on the ground, have been critical for preventing Russian forces from achieving air superiority. This is a remarkable feat. As an example of these efforts, earlier today, a video emerged that reported shows a TB2 destroyed Russian Buk-series mobile surface-to-air missile systems.
Preventing Russian forces from gaining control of the skies also gives Ukrainian aircraft, including the TB2s, the opportunity to try to destroy convoys carrying badly needed supplies to units in the field and provide close air support, as well as engage other kinds of ground targets. All of this, together, can only help hamper the Russian military's ability to provide air support to friendly forces, move with greater freedom on the ground inside Ukraine, and otherwise operate effectively.
All told, the Ukrainian Air Force has a need for more combat jets now. That demand will only grow as Russian forces continue to push along multiple axes in northern, eastern, and southern Ukraine, including around the capital Kyiv.
If these additional European jets are to have an impact on the conflict, Ukraine needs them as soon as possible.
UPDATED: 7:05 PM EST —
Alexandre Krauss, a policy advisor to members of Renew Europe, a "pro-European political group in the European Parliament," has written on Twitter these jets, whatever they might be, will be "flying in Ukraine [sic] skies within the hour." He did not elaborate further on what type of jets would be included in the Europe Union's military air package or who would be flying them in Ukrainian skies shortly.
Separately, The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum says that a European diplomat told him that Ukraine was set to receive Russian-made jets from Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland. This further points to the impending delivery of MiG-29s, as well as possibly Su-25s, just as The War Zone had laid out.
It's not clear how much training Ukrainian pilots might need to fly any of these aircraft. Polish and Slovakian pilots reportedly needed significant additional instruction to learn how to operate their upgraded MiG-29s. At the same time, much of that could cover more advanced systems that Ukraine's aviators won't necessarily need to know in order to get the aircraft into the fight, if they haven't been removed prior to delivery in the first place.
We will update this story as more information becomes available.
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