At the forefront of aid to Ukraine, Poland had paved the way for a delivery of fighter planes requested by the Kiev authorities by announcing on Thursday March 16 a first donation of four Soviet Mig-29s. The next day, Slovakia followed in the footsteps of the Poles by offering in turn 13 other Mig-29s, these all-terrain aircraft developed and sold successfully by the USSR and then Russia. Ads that “change nothing” however to the American refusal to do the same, assured John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House.
It has been three months since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke out for his country’s pressing request to its Western allies: to give “wings to freedom”, in other words, to deliver combat planes to the ‘Ukraine.
“Any Ukrainian plane that takes off could be immediately spotted”
So far, aviation has played only a minor role in the Russian-Ukrainian war, sometimes compared to the battles of the First World War with drones added. The overwhelming Russian domination in terms of number of aircraft did not allow Moscow to obtain air supremacy, for lack of having destroyed the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses during the first months of the conflict. Russia has since used its aircraft sparingly on the battlefield for fear of losing any.
The threat is no less great for the Ukrainian air force. “Unlike Ukraine, Russia has Awacs (radar systems carried by planes) which allow it to monitor the sky above Ukraine, recalls Frédéric Lert, specialist in aeronautics and defense issues. (1). Any Ukrainian aircraft that takes off could be immediately spotted and become vulnerable. »
Despite this harsh environment, combat aircraft would be able to perform a variety of valuable missions for the Ukrainian military. “With fighter planes, you can bomb all land forces, day and night,” explains Jean-Christophe Noël, associate researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri) and former pilot. “You can put pressure on the Russian device on the ground, break its logistics, its artillery. »
Combat aircraft are also capable of carrying out missions in support of ground forces, collecting intelligence and effectively contributing to the destruction of enemy missiles. “The Mamba and Patriot air defense batteries will be even more effective in eliminating air threats if they are combined with aircraft like the F-16,” said Ukrainian military expert Oleh Jdanov.
“You need several dozen planes to be able to launch massive raids”
This American aircraft model is not cited by chance. Developed in the 1970s, the “Fighting Falcon” is the most widely used combat aircraft in the world, in addition to being considered a very good quality device, capable of fulfilling a wide variety of missions. “This plane would be the most optimal for us, because it is the most versatile, adds Oleh Jdanov. And as for the German Leopard 2 tank, the fact that it is in large numbers in dozens of armies makes it the ideal candidate. »
The quantity of devices does indeed matter. According to the experts contacted by La Croix, it would be necessary to deliver at least a hundred planes to Ukraine for this to have a significant impact.
“You need several dozen planes to be able to launch massive raids that would knock out the enemy and liquidate their air defenses. It would still be necessary for the Ukrainians to have the know-how to coordinate complex attacks, ”recalls Frédéric Lert. Such tactics would require tremendous coordination and training that can take months or even years.
No Western planes on the battlefield before 2024
Delivering combat aircraft will therefore only have a medium or even long-term impact on the theater of operations. “Nothing will happen before 2024,” considers Jean-Christophe Noël. In addition to the training time for pilots, which takes six to eight months on the F-16s, sending such machines would require the establishment of considerable logistics, the creation of repair workshops, the supply of parts spares and ammunition, as well as a device to protect air bases.
Ukraine, however, has airfields equipped with bunkers and underground passages to house the planes and hopes to obtain Western anti-aircraft batteries before the planes, which will ensure their protection on the ground.
Taken together, these factors represent a considerable political, economic and military cost for the coalition of allies of Ukraine, which cannot do without the green light from Washington. On the delivery of fighter jets, US President Joe Biden has so far answered “no”, suggesting that he preferred to give equipment more likely to help Ukraine immediately rather than to a more distant horizon. But as with tanks, missile launchers or long-range missiles, there is nothing to indicate that this position will not change.