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Western Leaders Ponder Providing Fighter Jets to Ukraine

NATO allies are debating whether to send fighter jets to Ukraine.
NATO allies are debating whether to send fighter jets to Ukraine. Credit: Cp9asngf / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Members of the NATO alliance are unsure of whether to send fighter jets to Ukraine. For now, the US and UK have rejected the idea but Poland and France are more receptive.

Since the Russian invasion began in February of last year, Western governments have spent billions of dollars on military aid for Ukraine. This month, Ukrainian diplomat Vadym Omelchenko was able to reveal that Ukraine was expecting a delivery of over 300 tanks sent by several Western countries.

Now, Ukrainian officials have been stepping up calls for the delivery of fighter jets. Thus far, neither side has been able to establish air superiority but effective control of the airspace over Ukraine could significantly impact the outcome of hostilities.

Debate on providing fighter jets for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden has ruled out sending advanced fourth-generation fighter jets to Ukraine. On Monday, when asked by reporters whether he would send F-16s to Ukraine, he simply said “no.”

The UK has shown similar hesitancy. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that training Ukrainian pilots to operate “extremely sophisticated” fourth and fifth-generation multi-role combat aircraft like Eurofighter Typhoons and the F-35s would take too long and is “not practical”.

Other Western leaders have been keener on the possibility of providing Ukraine with fourth-generation aircraft. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in the Hague that “by definition, nothing is excluded” in terms of military assistance.

Meanwhile, an aide to French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu has told the press that France is considering the possibility of training Ukrainian air force pilots. Lecornu is set to discuss this possibility with his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, during a phone call later this week.

“I’ve heard many experts speak highly of French planes and their pilots. I would naturally be very happy if Ukrainian pilots can be trained to fly French planes and put this expertise towards securing victory,” Reznikov said during an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro on Friday.

The Polish government has also remained open to the idea. On Monday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Poland would “take decisions in close coordination” with its Western allies.

Earlier in January, the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra said that the  Netherlands would consider a request for F-16 fighters with “an open mind.” He added that there were “no taboos” in terms of military equipment.

The Polish Air Force operates a fleet of 48 F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, whereas the Dutch have 40 in service. Any transfer of F-16s to Ukraine would require permission from the US, the original manufacturer of the aircraft.

Air superiority

Neither side in the conflict has managed to achieve air superiority. This has sparked a lively debate amongst defense experts since Russia possesses a significant quantitative advantage over Ukraine in terms of the sheer number of its aircraft.

Defense analyst Kris Osborn has suggested that Russia’s failure to dominate the skies could be down to the effective use of surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems by Ukraine as part of a broader air defense strategy. The extent to which Russia’s more numerous and more advanced aircraft is operable is another potential factor.

Russian forces also appear to be “risk averse” to deploying their fighter jets over Ukraine. Russia currently operates aircraft like the SU-34 and the SU-57 FELON, which are more advanced than anything used by the Ukrainians, but Russian commanders have been hesitant to risk flying them over Ukrainian airspace.

Conversely, Russia’s aforementioned aircraft and its widespread use of advanced SAM systems like the S-400 have made it nigh impossible for the Ukrainian side to seize air superiority either.

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