‘Not brain science:’ Here’s how the Ukraine fighter swap could work

A view of the central square following shelling of the City Hall building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russia on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. Casualties mounted and reports emerged that more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed after Russian artillery recently hit a military base in Okhtyrka, a city between Kharkiv and Kyiv, the capital. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)


WASHINGTON ― While the politics surrounding the transfer of Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine are complicated, experts say the technical and logistical difficulties involved should not stand in the way of a deal.

There’s been two weeks of debate over whether Poland should or will transfer its Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine in exchange for a backfill of U.S. aircraft. A potential deal was upended after it went public, prompting Poland to announce it would offer the aircraft for the U.S. to shepherd into Ukraine, and the Biden administration ruled out such a move.

Amid a chorus of mostly Republican lawmakers pressuring U.S. President Joe Biden to facilitate the aircraft transfers, Biden on Wednesday announced another $800 million in military aid, including new drones and advanced anti-aircraft missiles. The administration had previously committed more than $1 billion in aid and is aiming to deter Russia by sending thousands of U.S. troops to bolster NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

Pentagon officials have been emphasizing the usefulness of previously supplied Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. They argue that with Russian anti-aircraft systems blanketing Ukraine’s skies, MiG-29s wouldn’t make Ukraine’s forces more effective. Moreover, Russia could view their transfer into Ukraine as escalatory, prompting it to retaliate.

“The MiG wouldn’t survive for a minute in Ukrainian airspace given what the Russians have, the surface-to-air missiles they have, given the quality of their fighter jets,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told reporters after Biden’s announcement. “Its ability to be effective is negligible, if at all. I think the focus on MiGs misses the point.”

But John Venable, a former Air Force fighter pilot now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the deal is doable and might have gone through if it hadn’t been made public.

“This is not brain science. The hurdles that the administration is saying right now … are way overstated,” Venable said. “We should move absolutely to transfer these jets right away, and if people are afraid of flying them, we should put these MiG-29s on trucks and drive them across the border.”

With MiG-29s already in Ukraine’s arsenal, the learning curve for the Ukrainians shouldn’t be very steep, Venable said, noting they’d likely only need a few hours of instruction to bring them up to speed on the Polish MiGs’ systems.

Polish MiGs have been modified with digital systems, he said, including analog dials upgraded to digital displays and systems including Identification Friend or Foe, or IFF, recognition devices. Those IFF boxes could be pulled out in an hour or so if deemed too sensitive — a much less-involved process than sanitizing Stinger missiles of their classified systems.

While Ukraine’s pilots are fighting very well, their fighters will inevitably sustain battle damage and wear the longer this goes on. At the very least, Venable said, Ukraine’s air force could cannibalize spare parts and weapons from the donated MiGs to keep their native fighters air-worthy.

Venable also said Poland should rearm Ukraine with its stocks of AA-11 air-to-air infrared missiles, which both nations use and would not require any adaptations to use on Ukraine’s existing fighters.

Flying very low is one of the few ways Ukraine’s MiG pilots can avoid air defenses such as Russia’s S-400, Venable said. That system is a serious threat, he said, viewed by the Air Force as the leading surface-to-air missile system in the world.

“It is the most deadly, has the longest range, you have the hardest time breaking lock on the system once it acquires you,” Venable said. “The S-400 is a deadly SAM system.”

Advocates of a Polish MiG transfer say the United States should send its F-16s to Poland to as part of the deal. This would be intended to fill the airpower gap Poland would face from losing its MiGs.

In a conference in Washington March 9, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force does not lack F-16s that could theoretically go to Poland, if the administration decided to do so.

He suggested even pulling retired F-16s out of the aircraft graveyard known as the Boneyard, at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, could be an option in that case.

But Kelly said what worries him is what history has shown a leader like Russian President Vladimir Putin is capable of doing, if a conflict turns against him.

“Dictators faced with the choice of either losing, or using chemical weapons, choose not to lose,” Kelly said. “That’s what, frankly, keeps me up at night more than where I’m going to source the F-16s from.”

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a new, emotional plea directly to lawmakers for “powerful, strong” aircraft Ukraine could use to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

“You know they exist and you have them, but they are on earth, not in the Ukrainian sky,” Zelensky said in a presentation that culminated with a video showing clips and photographs of devastated Ukrainian cities and wounded and dead civilians.

This week, 42 Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to assist in the transfer of the Soviet-era aircraft. But the pressure is bipartisan, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., among Democrats who have come out in favor of the MiG-29 transfers.

“We should provide every tool that the Ukrainians to defend themselves because if they have a fair fight on the ground, they will push Russian troops out of Ukraine,” Blumenthal said after Zelensky’s remarks Wednesday.

Previewing Biden’s announcement of new aid, lawmakers said the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft system, which is operated by Ukraine and some NATO countries, as well as the AeroVironment-made Switchblade 300 drone, were among new systems headed to Ukraine in the next tranche.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. said the initial deal for Poland to supply its MiG-29s directly fell apart last week amid Warsaw’s fears about “possible retaliation from Russia,” but he indicated those talks are not dead.

“I think everything is still on the table in that regard, but in the meanwhile, we’ve got to do something to try to close those skies, and the S-300 is the alternative which even President Zelensky mentioned in his statement,” Meeks said.

Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.