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US Says it Won’t Follow Suit With Other NATO Countries and Supply Ukraine With Fighter Jets

Published: March 17, 2023
Mikoyan MIG-29 fighter jets of the Polish Air Force take part in a NATO shielding exercise at the Lask Air Base on October 12, 2022 in Lask, Poland. NATO's Allied Air Command, the Polish Air Force and the United States Air Force demonstrated the modern aircraft capabilities of Polish F-16s and the U.S. F-22s. As the Russian Invasion of Ukraine continues, NATO member Poland has been investing in new military equipment and various NATO allies' troops are now stationed in the country. (Image: Omar Marques/Getty Images)

On March 16, Poland said it will be sending four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, a move that legacy media is saying is the “first” NATO member country to do so. The following day, Slovakia’s government approved a plan to send Ukraine its fleet consisting of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets as well. 

Polish president Andrzej Duda said on March 16, “When it comes to MiG-29 aircraft, which are still operating in the defense of Polish airspace, a decision has been taken at the highest levels, we can say confidently that we are sending MiGs to Ukraine.”

The announcements mark a significant escalation in NATOs involvement in the war, however, across the Atlantic the Biden Administration continues to say that it will not be supplying Ukraine with the air power they have been requesting. 

John Kirby, a top official of the U.S. National Security Council said that Poland made a “sovereign decision” that won’t prompt the U.S. to follow suit, CNN reported. 

“These are sovereign decisions for any country to make and we respect these sovereign decisions,” he said adding that, “They get to determine not only what they’re going to give but how they’re going to characterize it.” 

Appearing to decline to endorse the move Kirby said, “I wouldn’t think it’s our place to characterize Poland’s decision one way or another … It doesn’t change our calculus with respect to F-16s.”

A complex situation

At the beginning of the war it was believed that Ukraine had around 120 combat capable aircraft at its disposal, mainly Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-27s however experts at the time said that Ukraine would need upwards of 200 jets to counter Russia’s air-power, which is believed to be five or six times greater than Ukraine’s. 

Both logistical as well as political reasons have stood in the way of NATO member countries supplying Ukraine with the fighter jets they have been requesting.

The first logistical barrier is the long training times required on the jets. In February, Ukraine said that it had identified 50 pilots who could begin training on Western jets; however this training takes time and takes the pilots away from the current fighting, the BBC reported.

To properly train a pilot could take months, or even years, considering how complex modern fighter jets are; however British officials say that the process could be sped up for more seasoned pilots. 

The British government agreed at the time to start training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard aircraft but also warned that supplying the aircraft would only be a long-term option. 

Maintenance issues stood in the way of sending fighter jets as well. The jets requested require extensive maintenance after almost every flight and an entire ecosystem is required to keep the fighter jets in combat condition, an ecosystem Ukraine lacks. The UK’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, told the BBC in February this year that it isn’t “a simple case of towing an aircraft to the border.”

“When I was at NATO and visited an airbase, planes would come back in and the engineers would have to strip out whole systems and put them back in. It’s almost like every time you drive your car you have to put a whole carburetor in,” Dr. Jamie Shea, a former NATO official told the BBC. 


Risk of escalation

By far the largest factor preventing the U.S. from contributing fighter jets to the war is a fear that such a move would only escalate tensions with Russia, leading to a broader fight that could possibly spark a third world war. 

Early in February this year, CBS News reported that Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, warned that if Britain decided to provide fighter jets to Ukraine that it “would have military and political consequences for the European continent and the whole world.”

“Russia will find an answer to any unfriendly steps taken by the British side, including in the case of the supply of fighter jets to Ukraine,” Peskov said. “We perceive this as, in fact, nothing more than the growing involvement of Great Britain, Germany, France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The line between indirect direct involvement is gradually disappearing. One can only express regret in this regard.”

There’s no doubt Russia would treat American fighter jets in Ukrainian airspace with the same disdain.