Sunday December 03, 2023

Poland to send four MiG-29s to Ukraine

"We need F-16s. But MiGs will help to strengthen our capabilities," says Ukrainian Air Force spokesman

March 17, 2023
Two MiG 29 fighter jets take part in the NATO Air Shielding exercise near the air base in Lask, central Poland, Oct. 12, 2022. —AFP/File
Two MiG 29 fighter jets take part in the NATO Air Shielding exercise near the air base in Lask, central Poland, Oct. 12, 2022. —AFP/File 

PARIS: Ukraine this week won promises of 17 Soviet-design MiG-29 jets to replace fighters lost in the war, yet the planes aren't expected to radically shift the balance on the ground.

NATO member Poland said it would supply Kyiv with four of the ageing fighter jets and Slovakia pledged another 13 — all of which the Kremlin pledged to destroy.

Whatever the impact, a year of warfare has whittled away at Western hesitations over supplying equipment to Ukraine, as seen when Kyiv's allies finally agreed to provide heavy battle tanks.

Question of coherence

The MiG-29s promised this week are Soviet-era aircraft which Ukrainian pilots are already accustomed to flying.

"It's a question of coherence — responding to Ukraine's urgent need to defend its airspace with aircraft they already know how to use," a European air force officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"It's a ready-made solution that's more immediate than sending Western aircraft."

It takes an experienced pilot six months to learn to operate a modern combat plane. That training could possibly be squeezed into three months but not less.

The time gained by deploying MiG-29s nevertheless comes with operational limitations.

"It's a fighter jet with a limited range," explained Pierre Razoux of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES).

"It's heavily armed but it needs to be deployed in the middle of Ukraine — in quite a vulnerable spot — to be able to strike targets in the Donbas," Razoux told AFP of the eastern industrial region at the heart of the fighting.

Much-needed replacements

Figures about the war need to be treated with caution.

Specialist site Oryx, which tracks destroyed aircraft, said visual proof showed Kyiv had lost 61 warplanes, including its 18 MiG-29s, since the start of the war in February 2022.

Some appear to have been repaired and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says around 20 MiG-29s appear to be operational.

The Polish and Slovak planes, "although elderly and already hard-used... will provide much needed replacements for battlefield losses and will ease some of the maintenance pressure patching up current aircraft to keep them in the fight," said Nick Brown of Janes, a British private defence intelligence outfit.

"The most logical option would be to use them for protection in places where Ukraine needs more capacity for interception — over Kyiv, Odesa, Kherson and perhaps Kharkiv," Razoux said.

The most difficult task for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is to convince western nations to provide modern warplanes — the United States' F-15s, F-16s, F-18s and F-35s, France's Rafale jet and the European Eurofighter.

There is no chance of obtaining J-16s and J-20s from China, given Beijing's strategic ties with Moscow.

'We need F-16s'

Ukraine needs aircraft that can intervene to shore up ground offensives, using precision strikes far behind enemy lines.

"MiGs will not solve the tasks. We need F-16s. But MiGs will help to strengthen our capabilities," Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said on Thursday.

The promise of Polish and Slovak MiGs has not, however, altered Washington's decision not to offer Kyiv its own warplanes.

"It doesn't change our calculus with regards to F-16s," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday.

The Netherlands has not ruled out sending some of its own F-16s.

After refusing in January to provide Eurofighter Typhoons or F-35s, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has now offered to train Ukrainian fighter pilots to NATO standards.

But while he has asked the army to study the possibility of sending warplanes, Sunak has stressed this is a "long-term" option.

France has 13 Mirage 2000-C planes it recently retired from service and "still have some potential", the entourage of the French air force chief-of-staff said last month.

But insiders say sending them to Ukraine seems highly unlikely due to training and maintenance requirements.

Brown pointed out that the Polish and Slovak MiG-29s "have also been upgraded with NATO-compatible avionics systems" and Ukraine had been deploying US-supplied AGM-88 HARM missiles since last year to suppress Russian air defences.

"But ultimately these new donations represent more of the same, rather than a game-changing capability for the Ukrainian armed forces," he stressed.

"More aircraft will always be welcome," he said, "but while Russian forces can continue to project fearsome air defences over the battlefield — and even from within Russian airspace — Ukraine's ability to strategically deploy its airpower and truly shape the battlefield will continue to be constrained."