Ukraine Jets: More MIG Fighters Will Help, but Kyiv Really Wants F-16s

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s fighter pilots have helped to keep Russia from controlling the skies above the battlefield in the yearlong war. But the fact remains that Russia’s air force dwarfs Ukraine’s and its pilots have far superior technology.

The addition of more than a dozen Soviet-designed MIG fighter jets from Poland and Slovakia will certainly help Ukraine, which has seen dozens of aircraft shot down or worn out after more than a year of combat. But Ukrainian officials and military analysts do not expect the MIGs pledged so far to fundamentally alter the battle in the skies.

Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, said new MIGs would not “radically change” the situation on the front lines. Most of Slovakia’s MIG-29 warplanes are not working, so they are likely to be used mainly for spare parts.

“To some extent, this will increase our combat capabilities,” he said in an appearance on Ukrainian national television Friday morning. “But one should not forget that these are still Soviet and not modern Western aircraft.”

Ukrainian engineers have also figured out how to attach Western-made anti-radar missiles to its existing fleet of MIGs, allowing Kyiv to better target Russian radar and air-defense systems. The High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, known as HARMs, pose a threat to Russian air defense operators, in many cases forcing them to turn off their radar and lie low while Ukrainian MIGs are in the air — thus creating more freedom of movement for other Ukrainian aircraft.

But these missions are still fraught with danger for Ukrainian pilots.

“To successfully complete the task, they must go deep into the enemy’s defenses,” Mr. Ihnat said. “It is very dangerous to fly deep into the enemy’s defenses and you need to stick closer to the ground. And if you don’t do this, you will easily become prey.”

Ukraine has lost 61 planes since the war began, including 18 MIG-29s, according to the military analysis site Oryx, which only counts losses that it has visually confirmed. Over the same period, Russia has lost 79 aircraft, according to the group, whose analysts believe the real numbers for both sides are most likely far greater.

Mr. Ihnat said that Moscow’s fleet of attack aircraft is five times larger than Ukraine’s, and “much more technological.”

He and other Ukrainian officials have said that the country should focus on acquiring one type of advanced fighter, and that the F-16 remained the best option. Many nations employ the F-16, meaning the United States would not have to supply them directly, although it does need to approve any transfers to Ukraine from other countries. The Biden administration has declined to send F-16s but has not ruled out deciding later to provide them or allowing another country to do so.

The Ukrainian argument is that the F-16 is better than the MIG at shooting down cruise missiles because of its powerful radar and modern missiles, and could offer vastly more protection from Russian bombardment.

“It has a weapons system tied to that radar that can engage the vast majority of Russian aircraft long before they can attack it,” Greg Bagwell, a former British Royal Air Force commander who is president of the Air and Space Power Association, said in a recent interview with Radio Liberty.

“It’s tiny, it’s hard to see on radar, it’s even harder to see in the air with the naked eye,” he said of the F-16, adding: “It’s a vicious, nasty, dangerous little airplane.”

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