News that the West is considering whether to offer jet fighters to Ukraine came as no surprise.
As the incessant war of attrition depletes Ukraine’s stock of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition, the country will slowly but inexorably switch to Western arms. This will include jet fighters, as Kyiv will not be able to replenish its dwindling number of MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft.
However, the question is how much of a difference any Western fighters in Ukrainian hands will make.
For now, it’s not even clear what planes are contemplated for Ukraine. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. merely said during a recent conference that an arms transfer was now on the table.
“It’ll be something non-Russian, I can probably tell you that,” Brown said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “But I can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to be.”
Which aircraft could it be?
There are several possible options, including American-made fighters, and various European jets, such as France’s Rafale, Sweden’s Gripen, and the multi-nation Eurofighter Typhoon, Brown said.
Ironically, the least important issue here is which aircraft is chosen. The Rafale, Gripen, and Typhoon are all generation 4.5 fighters that are essentially descended from Cold War designs, as are the America F-16, F-18, and F-15EX. (The U.S. F-35 stealth fighter would never make the cut, due to Ukraine’s ability to absorb the technology, and fears of infuriating Moscow by handing its enemy stealth aircraft.) The complication, in this case, would be which European countries would be willing to antagonize Russia.
All of these Western aircraft are highly capable, with advanced sensors and missiles. They are equal to anything the Russian Air Force is flying in Ukraine, and, given the disappointing performance of Russian weapons in the Ukraine war, quite possibly better.
Ukraine needs more than jets
But the fact remains that airpower has had remarkably little impact on the war. Limited numbers of aircraft and precision-guided munitions, plus the deterrent effect of ground-based air defenses, have prevented aircraft from having a decisive effect. Drones – both armed and reconnaissance – have become a major presence. Compared to World War II campaigns, airpower has neither enabled the attacker to achieve breakthroughs, nor the defender to halt the attacker.
The war in Ukraine is being won and lost on the ground, most notably through Russia’s massive use of artillery. The big guns haven’t won Russia the war, but without them, it would have been driven out of Ukraine. The Ukrainians are hoping that newly arrived U.S. and European howitzers and multiple rocket launchers – especially U.S.-made HIMARS rockets that can shoot GPS-guided projectiles at targets 50 miles away – will shift the war in their favor. Particularly impactful – and spectacular – have been HIMARS strikes on Russian ammunition dumps.
Would the West supply enough aircraft to Ukraine to make a significant difference in the ground war? A few F-16s or Typhoons could make a substantial difference to Ukrainian air defenses by deterring Russian air strikes. But as offensive weapons, Ukraine would need more than a handful of planes, especially given Russia’s extensive arsenal of anti-aircraft weapons such as the S-300 system.
As in other conflicts, airpower is important both as an offensive tool to deliver quick, responsive firepower and as a defensive tool to keep enemy aircraft at bay. Yet, in Ukraine, fighter jets haven’t had much of an impact.
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