Argument

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Sending Old Fighter Jets to Ukraine Is a Terrible Idea

The urge to do something is strong, but there are more practical ways to help.

By , a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
Two French fighter jets and two Polish MiG-29s
Two French fighter jets and two Polish MiG-29s
Two French fighter jets (left) and two Polish MiG-29s fly over the air base in Malbork, Poland, on April 29, 2014. Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine continues, calls to provide crewed aircraft to Ukraine’s military dominate headlines in Washington and other NATO capitals. Russia’s attacks on civilians and unprovoked aggression have understandably prompted calls to do more—but not every idea is a good one. Despite reports from U.S. European Command that the Ukrainian Air Force’s relative effectiveness is unlikely to change with the addition of more fighter jets, demand persists. The desire to support Ukraine in its struggle against naked aggression is laudable. But security assistance is more than just gifting equipment—it is a complex question of creating or supporting capabilities and answering the right questions. When it is done wrong, it can create new problems. And in a powder keg like Ukraine, where the war could explode into a NATO-Russia conflict, it is a question of supporting capabilities without causing a direct clash between nuclear powers.

The politician’s syllogism is in full flight here: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.” The something in question is the idea that NATO’s Eastern European members should donate MiG-29 Fulcrum aircraft to Ukraine, as the airframe is operated by Ukrainian forces. Recently, Poland offered to fly its aging MiGs to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where U.S. forces would facilitate their transfer to Ukrainian pilots, who would fly the aircraft back to Ukraine. Some have descended further down this rabbit hole by suggesting the United States deliver its own A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft to Ukraine—prompted in part by a long Russian jam of vehicles that has now mostly cleared.

Successful security assistance begins with an identified requirement: What is the battlefield result Ukraine needs to achieve? Are Ukrainian forces unable to intercept Russian aircraft, or are they searching for ways to increase their assaults on Russia’s creaking logistics convoys and bogged-down tanks? Would more planes make a difference in either respect? These questions are absent from public conversation, but U.S. defense officials state repeatedly that the move would be more risk than reward. Most of Ukraine’s fighter aircraft are still in the fight, with Ukraine’s Air Force flying approximately five to 10 missions per day using a pool of about 50 jets. By contrast, Russian aircraft are flying nearly 200 missions per day but keeping their planes primarily within Russian airspace. Both sides are likely exercising extreme caution to avoid ground-based air defense systems. Given this knowledge, a score of Soviet-era air superiority assets would not meaningfully improve Ukraine’s military situation.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine continues, calls to provide crewed aircraft to Ukraine’s military dominate headlines in Washington and other NATO capitals. Russia’s attacks on civilians and unprovoked aggression have understandably prompted calls to do more—but not every idea is a good one. Despite reports from U.S. European Command that the Ukrainian Air Force’s relative effectiveness is unlikely to change with the addition of more fighter jets, demand persists. The desire to support Ukraine in its struggle against naked aggression is laudable. But security assistance is more than just gifting equipment—it is a complex question of creating or supporting capabilities and answering the right questions. When it is done wrong, it can create new problems. And in a powder keg like Ukraine, where the war could explode into a NATO-Russia conflict, it is a question of supporting capabilities without causing a direct clash between nuclear powers.

The politician’s syllogism is in full flight here: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.” The something in question is the idea that NATO’s Eastern European members should donate MiG-29 Fulcrum aircraft to Ukraine, as the airframe is operated by Ukrainian forces. Recently, Poland offered to fly its aging MiGs to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where U.S. forces would facilitate their transfer to Ukrainian pilots, who would fly the aircraft back to Ukraine. Some have descended further down this rabbit hole by suggesting the United States deliver its own A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft to Ukraine—prompted in part by a long Russian jam of vehicles that has now mostly cleared.

Successful security assistance begins with an identified requirement: What is the battlefield result Ukraine needs to achieve? Are Ukrainian forces unable to intercept Russian aircraft, or are they searching for ways to increase their assaults on Russia’s creaking logistics convoys and bogged-down tanks? Would more planes make a difference in either respect? These questions are absent from public conversation, but U.S. defense officials state repeatedly that the move would be more risk than reward. Most of Ukraine’s fighter aircraft are still in the fight, with Ukraine’s Air Force flying approximately five to 10 missions per day using a pool of about 50 jets. By contrast, Russian aircraft are flying nearly 200 missions per day but keeping their planes primarily within Russian airspace. Both sides are likely exercising extreme caution to avoid ground-based air defense systems. Given this knowledge, a score of Soviet-era air superiority assets would not meaningfully improve Ukraine’s military situation.

Publicly available information does not seem to indicate Ukraine is short of air superiority—open source intelligence site Oryx lists confirmation of seven fighters destroyed since the start of the Russian invasion—or that air superiority fighters are a key element of Ukraine’s defense plan. If Ukraine lost MiGs in air-to-air fighting, then it unfortunately lost pilots as well, leaving fewer trained crew for new aircraft. If their fighters are being destroyed on the ground, why wouldn’t new aircraft be destroyed the same way before they are even used? How many Russian aircraft and ground vehicles have been eliminated by Ukrainian aircraft in comparison to other methods? Proponents of sending MiGs or A-10s have yet to answer any of these questions in a convincing manner.

And these are not plug-and-play solutions. Poland’s MiGs are decades old, and many were hand-me-downs when the Poles received them. Fighters, especially older ones, require considerable maintenance as well as an ensured pipeline of spare parts and munitions. Ukraine’s capability to sustain those extra aircraft is unclear.

The Provision of A-10s would be more difficult, bordering on fantastical. There is zero domestic capability to repair or maintain those aircraft and nobody to fly them; this is not an aircraft Ukraine has ever operated. And while the desire to see a winged gatling gun rip through columns of armor may live on in the collective imagination of U.S. aviators and congressmen and despite their love of the fabled Warthog, as the A-10 was nicknamed, the aircraft would not survive in a modern air defense environment.

Unfortunately, political rhetoric has been substituted for practicality. Turning the conversation toward requirements is met with the dubious counter that a president like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, who is fighting for his life, would not be asking for things he does not need. (Heroic figures are not necessarily great at military logistics, as any study of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill will demonstrate—and part of Zelensky’s greatness at this moment is that he is a savvy performer who knows how to put moral pressure on the West when it comes to getting more aid.) Sending MiGs to Ukraine has even been presented as the “only morally right choice.” But without an operational use argument, this solution is little more than vaporware, distracting from efforts to provide useful assistance to Ukraine.

For an example of successful requirements-driven security assistance, look at the actual security aid given to Ukraine since its defeat in 2014. The Ukrainian military has been transformed from one that was drubbed by Russian-backed irregulars to one that has shocked the world with the ferocity of its resistance. Social media is filled with videos of flaming Russian armor defeated by small teams of Ukrainian soldiers trained by NATO member states and armed with effective Western anti-tank weapons while Russian generals are picked off at the front by Western-trained snipers. Much of this credit naturally goes to the Ukrainian men and women fighting the battles. But they were no less brave in 2014: Receiving the right training and the right tools was a critical piece of the puzzle.

Half-baked ideas like the MiG deal are particularly dangerous in the context of Ukraine. Despite rhetorical chest-thumping, neither Russia nor NATO wants a direct military conflict between nuclear-armed powers. Some have invoked the long-running U.S. campaign that armed Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union a half century ago was evidence that the United States has plenty of latitude to act without escalating the situation. These observers ignore the fact that, despite popular knowledge of U.S. involvement, the U.S. government took great pains to avoid overtly poking the Soviets in the eye, supplying nonattributable equipment and never publicizing U.S. involvement.

The West is already long past that point, overtly providing equipment, financial assistance, and intelligence support as well as publicly debating what should come next. Supporting the Ukrainian effort to maintain its independence is the right thing to do, but the risks must be worth the reward—both for Ukraine and NATO. Delivering old planes to a force that already has enough old planes does not clear that hurdle.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

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