Which fighter is the best for Ukraine in its fight against Russia?

WASHINGTON – When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the Kremlin had hundreds of MiG and Sukhoi planes in reserve in its air force.

By some estimates, the Ukrainian fighter fleet was much meager, numbering 69 aircraft at most. According to experts, its size was one-tenth that of Russia.

Ukraine and its supporters claim that Western fighters are now needed to tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor while enabling close air support and air interdiction missions.

In a December address to Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated, “Ukraine has never asked American troops to fight on our soil in our place.” “I promise you that Ukrainian forces are fully capable of handling US tanks and aircraft on their own.”

A group of senators and representatives from both parties wrote to Vice President Joe Biden in February, urging the Obama administration to swiftly decide whether to send F-16s or other fighters to Ukraine. Hence, the country has time to train its fighters.

“Unlike current ground-based air defense platforms used by Ukrainian forces, the ability of fighter jets to quickly traverse a wide combat space with a significant weapons load could prove decisive for airspace control. Ukrainian this year,” the lawmakers noted. Jared Golden, Democrat from Maine; Tony Gonzales, Republican of Texas; Jason Crow, Democrat from Colorado; Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin. And Chrissy Houlahan, Democrat of Pennsylvania.

Over the past year, the military aid sent by the United States and its allies has steadily increased in firepower; weapons include loitering munitions, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, artillery, and more.

After several weeks of uncertainty, the United States accepted the sale of M1 Abrams main combat tanks to Ukraine in January, coinciding with Germany’s decision to supply Leopard 2 main battle tanks.

Some Western government leaders have kept the door open when it comes to the supply of fighter jets, with UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace telling reporters in February: “Nothing is to be ruled out.”

The problem is that not everyone agrees. Air defense technology designed to deny Russia the sky, such as the Patriot system, is more valuable, according to Pentagon strategy head Colin Kahl, who recently told legislators that weaponry to dominate Ukrainian airspace, like Western fighter jets, are worth less.

F-16s or other fighters are “a priority for the Ukrainians, but [not] one of their top three priorities,” Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee on February 28. “Their top priorities are air defense systems [and] keeping their interceptors and air defense network alive against Russian cruise missiles and the like, and Iranian drones, artillery and fire…and armored systems and mechanized”.

Kahl said that providing even three dozen aging F-16s would cost about $3 billion — and a larger fleet could cost as much as $11 billion. Washington’s top-ranking Democrat, Adam Smith, voiced doubts about the supply of F-16s and their impact on the war during the same session.

“Even if we basically said there is nothing more important than that weapon system and put all our time and all our resources into it, at best, we could get some operational F-16s to Ukraine within a year, maybe eight months if we really pushed ourselves,” Smith said. “And this is being lucky.

 Because not only do you have to train the pilots, but also the mechanics, have aerodromes that can accommodate the F-16s and have the spare parts to make them work”.

An Existential Struggle

The Ukrainian Air Force operates MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker combat jets. The Ukrainian Air Force reportedly has 43 MiG-29s and 26 Su-27s, according to the 2022 edition of Flight International’s air force almanac.

But Justin Bronk, a senior fellow for air power and technology at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, said Flight International’s tally is “quite optimistic.” He said the actual situation in Ukraine is much more problematic, though he declined to give concrete examples, citing security reasons. 

Bronk, also a professor at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, extensively researched Ukraine’s military needs and traveled to the country last fall.

Russia, for its part, has about 370 MiG-29, -31, and -35 fighters, as well as 350 Su-27, -30, and -35 fighters, according to the Flight International almanac. Fighters like the MiG-35 and Su-35 of the Russian fleet are also more advanced than Ukraine’s.

In addition to numbers, Russia has several significant advantages over the Ukrainian Air Force, Bronk noted. He said Russian fighters have “drastically better” radar and missile capabilities. The country also has command and control and early warning aircraft, which Ukraine lacks, as well as better ground-based air defenses with supporting radars.

According to Heather Penney, an ex-F-16 pilot and current researcher-in-residence at the Mitchell Center for Aerospace Studies, newer, more capable planes and munitions would allow Ukraine to suppress opposing air defenses.

Once cleared, she added that Ukraine could carry out close air support missions and interception strikes against tank columns, artillery emplacements, massed infantry, and Russian ships once cleared.

This would take the pressure off Ukraine’s ground forces and free them up for their operations. Ukrainian drone use has been innovative, but “they are not going to shift the course of the fight,” as Penney put it.

Ukraine, for instance, bombed Russian vehicles and other military targets with a small number of inexpensive Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in the early months of the conflict.

 Ukraine has also used US-supplied loitering munitions, such as the Switchblade 300 and 600 made by AeroVironment and the Air Force-developed Phoenix Ghost.

But the United States has so far resisted sending more advanced drones, such as the Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper, to Ukraine.

Bronk said the country is not short of pilots, but the problem is that they don’t have enough airworthy planes. Ukraine is having a particularly hard time with the availability of its Flankers, he added.

The fact that the Ukrainian fighter fleet is Russian-made seriously limits its access to spare parts, worsening the availability of the planes. This is one of the main reasons why Ukraine should move away from MiGs and Sukhois and towards Western fighters, US Air Force Chief of Staff General CQ Brown stated at the Security Forum of Aspen held in July 2022.

When asked about potential additions to Ukraine’s future fleet, Brown mentioned the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale, and the European Eurofighter in addition to American-made fighters.

Bronk claims that since Russia’s invasion began, Ukraine has “aggressively” worked to strengthen its fighter fleet by fixing up obsolete jets and bringing non-flyable ones back into service.

“They probably wouldn’t meet peacetime airworthiness standards, let alone combat readiness,” Bronk said. “But they’re in an existential struggle, so of course, they’re using what they can.”

considering the options

Ukraine has regularly requested Western aircraft, such as Lockheed Martin’s F-16, but according to Bronk, his Air Force has better options due to its specific circumstances.

He said that keeping a series of small airbases operational is difficult, and Ukraine could not repave all its runways to keep them smooth and tidy. 

In the chaos of war, he explained, Ukraine would also be unable to keep its runways regularly clear of foreign object debris, which could prove devastating to the F-16, given its large, wide air intake under the fuselage that could suck in debris.

He added that debris could also damage the landing gear if it kicks up during takeoff or landing.

The F-16 “is a light fighter designed for nice runways,” Bronk said. “Most of the Ukrainian tracks are quite rough. So if they move that way, the fighter has to be [able to] withstand it and not suffer a massive increase in maintenance [needs], and the support team and maintenance agreements have to be able to do that.”.

According to Bronk, Western fighters in Ukraine would immediately become priority targets for Russia, likely forcing Ukraine to continue with its strategy of dispersing and displacing the planes. He added that that would present more complications for the F-16 since its ground support equipment tends to be bulky and difficult to disperse.

Bronk suggested that the Gripen would be a better fit for Ukraine because its logistics and maintenance equipment can be transported using ordinary 20-foot containers.

Bronk mentioned that the F-18, built by Boeing, is another possibility because of its robustness and the fact that its support equipment can be folded down to a size suitable for Ukraine’s demands. The F-18 was developed for salty sea settings.

Bronk said Western fighters are simpler to fly than MiGs and Sukhoi, but their mission systems and weapon technology are more complex.

Training Ukrainian pilots — especially their experienced fighter pilots — in fourth-generation Western fighters shouldn’t be too difficult, Penney said. Typically, the US Air Force takes eight months to a year to train its pilots on its fighters.

“They don’t have to be perfect,” Penney said. “They have to be good enough to execute in combat.”

He said the US could develop a fast-paced, agile training program for Ukrainian pilots that would last two to two and a half months. Nevertheless, John Venable, a senior military scholar at the Heritage Foundation and a former F-16 pilot, has stated that educating Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 effectively will be difficult.

“Learning to fly an F-16 is easy for a pilot,” Venable said. “Learning to use the F-16 is difficult.”

He added that training the technicians to repair these fighters would also be challenging. But the status quo, Penney said, is untenable. He explained that without a modernized Ukrainian Air Force, the conflict has turned into a war of attrition, with echoes of World War I trench warfare. This puts Ukraine in a dire situation, he added.

“Ukraine only has a limited number of people to feed in the meat grinder of land warfare,” Penney said. “They need to go to the third dimension, which is done with airplanes.”