MiG fighter jets would boost Ukraine – but the first challenge is simply getting them into the skies

This article appeared in The Telegraph on March 9th, 2022

Any “rented MiGs” will be a significant boost to Ukraine, but they won’t tip the air balance on their own.

Even if the country manages to take delivery of the 28 MiG-29 fighters offered by Poland, it will take some time for the jets to be as effective as they need to be in the skies over their country.

Designed originally to race into the air to take on the US F-15 and F-16 combat aircraft, the jets have been developed over the years to be able to strike ground targets, including with precision-guided munitions.

The Russian-made aircraft are strong, sturdy, reliable, competent and can turn on a sixpence. But with big engines and small fuel tanks, they have very little endurance. 

They are not built to the same standards as Western aircraft; the tolerances are much lower. As such, they are a bit heavier than a US F-16 or RAF Typhoon, and whilst they may be able to carry state-of-the-art weapons, the airframes are anything but.

In the hands of Ukrainian pilots, they would be a “thorn in the side” of Russian air and ground forces, a defence source told The Telegraph. But they are limited.

An extra 28 jets would be incredibly helpful for Ukraine, particularly as Russia has failed to achieve air superiority over the country. 

Unless Ukraine has a sophisticated logistics organisation though, where would all the additional spare parts come from that are needed to keep the fleet operational?

Without additional spares, probably half of the gifted Polish machines would quickly turn into glorified Christmas trees, supplying spares for the rest of the fleet.

Even with an established support system, a maximum of about 10 aircraft from this extra tranche would be expected to be serviceable and ready to fight on any given day.

Reinforcing maintenance teams 

However, there is much more to employing air power than simply having airframes available.

Pilots, mechanics, avionics technicians and airspace managers are just some of the roles needed to deliver military power from the skies. All of them must be available on the day.

And where would they fly from? Ukraine has limited options. Russia failed to land many cruise missiles on Ukraine’s military runways at the start of this campaign, but holding the fleet all in one place invites disaster.

Equally, splitting the fleet up in a bid to protect the airframes would create operational headaches when the order to launch missions was sent.

It is possible that Ukraine could set up a temporary forward operating base on a motorway in the west of the country, under the protection of an air defence umbrella.

The RAF practised for these sorts of scenarios during the Cold War, but they’re not easy, and it is unlikely that any air force could set up such a contingency with no notice.

The point of no return?

The issue of gifting the MiGs to Ukraine has raised other concerns. The plan to send the aircraft, possibly via the US Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, has seemingly crossed a red line.

Western politicians and Nato officials were left scratching their heads on Wednesday morning, wondering where the threshold of acceptable and not acceptable lethal aid lies.

Could Ukrainian pilots fly the jets directly from Poland? Was Poland seeking to spread the risk by announcing, seemingly without negotiating first with Washington, they would send the planes to Ramstein?

Would Vladimir Putin, a man known to like taking risks and who has repeatedly raised the spectre of nuclear weapons, deem the supply of Soviet-era fighters from the West a step too far?

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, was blunt in his analysis. He said there would be “blowback for Poland if it happened”. 

However, Eduard Heger, the prime minister of Slovakia, a Nato member, seemed to disagree. 

“We are all united in this. The risk is always ours together as Nato, the EU or Europe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It’s not about individual countries because Ukraine is fighting for democracy.”

An unhelpful precedent

Western officials think Putin would use nuclear weapons if his regime was threatened, and then only – initially, at least – as a demonstration: a “small” battlefield nuclear strike against an airfield, or a detonation in the atmosphere above a city to knock out power through the electromagnetic pulse.

Poland was unwise to force the US to decide whether it thinks Putin would view sending the MiGs from Ramstein as sufficiently escalatory to threaten the use of nuclear weapons.

An unhelpful precedent has been set regarding the threshold of what lethal aid is acceptable and what is not.

Putin will now do all he can to push that threshold down in order to stop the flow of tank-busting missiles wrecking his military ambitions.

All the while, the MiG-29s are still in Poland and Ukraine is still being pounded from the air.  

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