Ukrainian officials are asking for fighter aircraft, with President Zelenskyy telling the UK to give the country “wings” to control the skies. But there are a lot of factors for Western countries to consider before doing so, experts say.
When Finland’s airforce switched from Soviet fighter jets to US-made aircraft, Jarmo Lindberg led the first group of experienced pilots to be trained in California to fly F18 hornets.
That training took a full year including English lessons, flight simulations, emergency procedures and learning to use the aircraft to fight, the former fighter pilot and chief of defence told Euronews.
As Ukraine urges the West to provide them with fighter jets to defend against Russia, experts say there are a lot of considerations to take into account before supplying them.
“It takes time and this is why we need to be realistic and honest that this doesn’t just materialise in weeks,” Lindberg told Euronews.
‘A far more advanced capability’
Ukrainians currently fly Soviet-era MiG-29 and Sukhoi jets but have expressed interest in US-made F-16s, currently used in several EU countries as well.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine wanted to form a new “coalition of the planes” in a speech to UK lawmakers earlier this month that came after weeks of debates in Western capitals about whether to supply battle tanks to Ukraine
Presenting an airforce helmet to UK Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Zelenskyy read the inscription on it: “we have freedom, give us wings to protect it.
Lindberg said in their place he too would request the Western fighter jets as it is “a far more advanced capability than what they are now getting from Western countries.”
Fighter jets are extremely fast and can help Ukraine to shift its operations very quickly across the entire country, he also said.
Jan Joel Andersson, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, added that Ukraine could lose their current fighter jets and needs “an air force to be viable to have a credible defence in the medium to long-term”.
Dutch monitoring group Oryx has estimated that Ukraine has lost 53 combat aircraft so far since the beginning of the war.
And fighter jets would allow Ukrainians to better control the skies and protect their ground forces that come under attack from Russia, Ukrainian officials and some experts argue.
A possible escalation
But with this “more advanced” capability could come a new escalation in the war, a risk that is likely being weighed by Western governments, experts told Euronews.
At the end of January, US President Joe Biden ruled out sending fighter jets while UK defence secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC that there would be no immediate transfer of jets.
Downing Street has said the UK plans to expand training for Ukrainian fighter jet pilots as part of “their investment” in Ukraine’s military. Other countries have expressed more openness to the idea of supplying jets.
Many experts agree that providing fighter jets could be viewed by Russia as an escalation in the war, with concerns that Ukraine could use the aircraft and missiles to strike within Russia’s territory.
There have been multiple reports in US media that the Pentagon even modified HIMARS rocket launchers to prevent them from shooting missiles into Russia.
Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy programme at the Stimson Center in Washington, said that the escalation risks are both “serious and very real” and have been managed so far by a strategy of “incrementalism” with Western countries gradually providing more advanced weapons.
“One of the challenges at this moment is that it becomes increasingly dangerous because the West is seeing that this gradual approach is working, and so it's becoming less concerned about some of these escalation risks,” she added.
Would fighter jets even help Ukraine?
Phil Haun, dean of academics at the US Naval War College and a former fighter pilot, said that Western aircraft would not give Ukraine much of a military advantage due to “robust Russian air defences”.
Haun, who responded to Euronews in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the US defence department, said that jets could even become a “high-value target for a Russia attack”.
Some say that Ukraine’s air force could run the risk of becoming less efficient with Western jets.
“What you really don't want to do is you don't want to take somebody who's combat effective and efficient in a Soviet-era combat aircraft and put them in a Western combat aircraft where there’s a risk they become combat ineffective,” Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.
“It's much easier to replace a combat aircraft than it is a pilot. You lose all of that experience,” he added.
For Barrie, there are many outstanding questions such as whether Ukraine has been able to free up pilots already to train on Western aircraft.
“You can cut some corners, but you don't want to cut so many that you end up with a pilot who is less capable and you need to be,” he said.
It’s also not the same type of conflict as other wars where Western air forces were deployed, experts say.
“Neither Russian nor Ukrainian air forces have been able to effectively operate their fighter aircraft against opposing ground forces,” Haun added.
This is due to Soviet surface-to-air missiles operated by both countries that make it “very difficult for fighter aircraft to perform offensive operations.”
Grieco said that supporting and providing capabilities to Ukraine’s ground forces which can take territory should be the most important focus for the US and EU.
“What we're seeing is what 21st-century air warfare looks like, and that involves missiles, drones and air defence systems. And those are really the three things that Ukraine needs,” she said.