No, Additional Fighter Jets Haven’t Been Delivered To Ukraine

The Pentagon says Ukraine has more aircraft flying now than it did two weeks ago, but it’s not because they got new jets.

byHoward Altman, Joseph Trevithick| PUBLISHED Apr 20, 2022 2:15 PM
No, Additional Fighter Jets Haven’t Been Delivered To Ukraine
Photo by Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
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Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby has clarified remarks he made yesterday, stressing that the U.S. government has only facilitated deliveries of spare parts for Ukraine's fighter jets, not whole aircraft, at least so far. The Ukrainian Air Force had already denied widespread reports that it has received any additional fighter jets or other fixed-wing aircraft from any of its foreign partners.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Kirby had made confusing remarks about the Ukrainian Air Force having "received additional aircraft" with direct assistance from the U.S. government, but also that "we have not transported whole aircraft." Multiple outlets subsequently reported that additional fixed-wing aircraft, and fighter jets specifically, had been transferred to Ukraine.

"Ukraine did not receive new aircraft from partners!" an English language Tweet from the Ukrainian Air Force's official account declared earlier today. "With the assistance of the US Government, [the Ukrainian Air Force] received spare parts and components for the restoration and repair of the fleet of aircraft in the Armed Forces, which will allow to put into service more equipment."

A similar statement appeared in Ukrainian on the service's Facebook page.

"They have received additional aircraft and aircraft parts to help them, you know, get more aircraft in the air," the Pentagon's top spokesperson had told reporters yesterday.

However, it is now clear that he simply meant that the Ukrainian Air Force had returned aircraft it already had in inventory, but that were previously not flyable, to active service thanks to the shipments of spare parts.

"They right now have available to them more fixed-wing fighter aircraft than they did two weeks ago," he had also said. "And that's not by accident, that's because other nations who have experience with those kinds of aircraft have been able to help them get more aircraft up and running."

"We certainly have helped with the transshipment of some additional spare parts that have helped with their aircraft needs," he added. "But we have not transported whole aircraft."

This is all only likely to reinvigorate debates about finding ways to get additional fighters and other combat jets to Ukraine, something that has already been a hot-button issue for the country and its international partners, especially the United States, for weeks now. The focus has largely been on possible avenues for the Ukrainian Air Force to get more examples of the Soviet-design fighters it already flies – MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-27 Flankers – and therefore has existing experience operating and maintaining. There have also been discussions about what it might take to deliver other combat jets, including U.S.-made F-16s and Romania's now-grounded, but heavily upgraded MiG-21 LanceRs.

A Ukrainian pilot known by his callsign "Juice" stands next to his MiG-29. Juice/Ukrainian Air Force

One proposal to give Ukraine Poland's remaining fleet of Soviet-designed MiG-29 Fulcrums, which have been upgraded multiple times since the end of the Cold War, notably collapsed in March after the U.S. government declined to facilitate the transfer via Ramstein Air Base in Germany. At the time, American authorities cited particularly serious risks of such a transfer escalating tensions with Russia, as well as whether or not aircraft like this represented the kind of military assistance that the Ukrainian armed forces actually needed. It is worth noting that the U.S. military says it has transferred a number of Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip-type helicopters to Ukraine's military since the conflict began and is planning to send more soon.

When it comes to fixed-wing aircraft, more recently, there have been active discussions about turning over Slovakia's MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force. An apparent crowd-funding campaign to get the service more fighters has also emerged, though it remains unclear if it is in any way a serious, above-board effort.

While the Ukrainian military still has yet to get any new combat jets from any foreign source, Kirby's now-clarified remarks make clear that deliveries of spare parts have become an important part of maintaining the aircraft it already has. A senior U.S. defense official said separately today the spares had enabled the Ukrainian Air Force to get approximately 20 jets back in action. This is a significant number given that there were only around 50 MiG-29s and 32 Su-27s in service in Ukraine, to begin with, when Russia launched its all-out invasion in February.

Before the current conflict started, Ukraine had a very active defense industry that, among other things, was able to locally support many Soviet-era aircraft types, including MiG-21s, MiG-29s, and Su-27s. Unfortunately, as the conflict has dragged on, Russian forces have been targeting Ukrainian defense contractors, especially aviation enterprises, with a clear eye toward hampering the ability of Ukraine's military, especially its air arm, to sustain its operations. In March, Russian cruise missiles struck Ukraine's only facility capable of performing depot-level maintenance on MiG-29s, causing extensive damage.

A Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 launches from its base for a training flight., Rich Cooper

The War Zone has raised questions on multiple occasions in the past about how these strikes might impact Ukraine's combat jets fleets and that this could make U.S. or U.S.-facilitated deliveries of spare parts even more valuable. Another factor at play here is that the Ukrainian Air Force has been conducting high-tempo operations in very challenging conditions for nearly two months, which increases the amount of general wear and tear on aircraft.

Though Ukrainian fighter jets are just one part of the air defense equation in the country, they have played an important role in preventing Russian forces from gaining air superiority even after nearly eight weeks of fighting. A senior U.S. defense official said today that Ukraine's skies remain contested and that fixed-wing Russian aircraft do not appear to be staying in the country's airspace for very long due to the threat level, including from ground-based surface-to-air missiles.

“We still believe the airspace is contested that the Ukrainians still have a viable active and energetic air defense,” a senior U.S. defense official had said yesterday, offering additional details about the air war in the country. “One anecdotal piece of evidence of that in the fixed-wing airstrikes that they are conducting down in the south, we continue to see a sort of a similar weariness by Russian pilots that we saw up in the north, where they either will not enter Ukrainian airspace before launching their strikes or they will skirt briefly inside Ukrainian airspace and then immediately egress out of that airspace because they have such respect for Ukrainian air defense capability."

Ukrainian combat jets have been performing their own airstrikes, too, although they have been limited in scope. Ukraine's air combat capabilities could have renewed importance, overall, now that Russia's military has launched a reinvigorated offensive to seize control of the country's eastern Donbas region.

All told, though Ukraine's Air Force still hasn't received any additional combat jets from its foreign supporters, deliveries of spare parts that the U.S. has facilitated now look to be playing an important role in ensuring the service can stay in the fight against invading Russian forces.

Contact the authors: Howard.altman@recurrent.io and joe@thedrive.com

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