The Right Combat Jets For Ukraine
There are few cooler machines that go zoom than a jet fighter, and even in the drone age crewed aircraft are proving their worth over Ukraine.
Trouble is, sooner or later Ukraine’s fleet of MiG and Sukhoi combat jets will run out of spare parts.
They were built in the Soviet era, and most of the stuff needed to repair them is made in Russia or tied to Russian-controlled supply chains. What remained of the Soviet-era military industrial base in Ukraine has been largely destroyed by a six month missile barrage.
Already Ukraine’s military has had to switch to NATO standard artillery and rockets, having used up most of its pre-war arsenal of Soviet style shells.
Eventually the same will be true of everything else it needs to hold back Putin’s forces, including the jets used by its air force.
This raises an important and — if you’re a combat aviation nerd like me, extremely fascinating question:
Which option is best for Ukraine given the harsh conditions its pilots — Ghosts of Kyiv all — are facing right now?
In jet fighter shopping, the variables that matter most are not generally the ones that might first jump to mind.
You can pretty much forget about stuff like payload, maximum speed, wing loading, and thrust to weight ratios — y’know, all the stuff that gets highlighted in aviation publications.
What by necessity must drive Ukraine’s choice of new aircraft are far more mundane matters, notably:
- Availability of spare parts
- Ability to operate in rough conditions
- Compatibility with the right weapons
Logistics, in short. The boring (to some) yet absolutely defining aspect of all war.
So, some background on the situation in the skies over Ukraine.
Despite facing some 400+ Russian combat jets, Ukraine has, with at best only a sixth of their numbers, managed to keep its air force in the fight for six months.
This is an achievement that will go down in history, one made possible by skill, determination, innovation, and the natural blessing of having a lot of space to work with.
In point of fact, it was never possible for Russia — or even NATO — to secure lasting control of Ukraine’s skies.
Surface to air missile systems are simply too portable, robust, and thick on the ground to fully suppress or destroy. They’re easier to hide than jets, and even stealth aircraft can in fact be detected well enough to neutralize if not destroy them.
The idea that Ukraine’s air defenses could ever have been totally wiped out without the attacker losing a crippling number of aircraft in the bargain is one of the biggest myths about the fighting in Ukraine sold by Western observers of the war.
It’s a tall tale sold by people deeply invested in the United States Air Force’s bureaucratic ecosystem, which promotes a mythos of air war in order to justify being its own independent branch of the armed forces.
This was not the case in the Second World War when my granddad was a belly turret gunner on bombers in the Army Air Corps. The last war with a peer power America clearly won, note.
The physical impossibility of controlling the skies over a country as big and well-armed as Ukraine is why Russia never even tried.
Russia has, throughout the war in Ukraine mostly focused on guarding its own airspace, where it can launch missile barrages at will without sending aircraft over hostile territory where they might get shot town. Where it saw serious losses was during the first month of the war, when Russian forces were fighting deep inside Ukrainian territory.
The main exception to Russia’s tendency to focus on air denial, not supremacy, is over the front lines, where Russia makes heavy use of strike jets to augment its artillery.
Here, contrary to the predictions of so many air warfare boosters, non-stealthy aircraft on both sides fly low to deliver strikes then leave the danger zone as quickly as they can.
Dogfights are rare, with most aerial combat involving missiles fired from tens of kilometers away.
Flying low is every aircraft’s best defense because ground based radars can’t see below the horizon produced by Earth’s curved surface, which is about 40-50km for a system placed on a slight rise surrounded by flat terrain and operating on a clear day.
Airborne radars can detect low-flying objects at a much greater distance, but face the immense challenge of picking target signals out from the clutter produced by the ground and all the stuff built, growing, or traveling across it.
Basically, modern air warfare is simply nothing like you probably expect if Top Gun is your only reference point.
Geographically, it has been impossible to completely control skies since surface to air missiles became widespread. Only when a targeted country or group lacks comprehensive air defenses can an attacker hope to dominate the skies, end even then only at higher altitudes.
Nowadays, jet aircraft can only hope to operate behind friendly lines, in pairs at extremely low altitudes, or as part of a large strike package of dozens of jets capable of suppressing all hostile air defenses in a particular area.
Ukraine doesn’t have the resources for option three, but it has been able to utilize its vast open spaces to keep its outgunned air force in the fight. Rough airstrips dot the landscape, allowing Ukraine to split up its jets to make them harder to locate.
Aided by early warning of inbound missile strikes coming from NATO airborne radars flying over Poland and Romania, Ukraine can flush aircraft from any outpost under threat and have them land somewhere safe even if they aren’t able to intercept the attackers themselves.
Rather than take on Russian jets when badly outnumbered, Ukraine’s Mig-29 and Su-27 fighters appear to focus on knocking down some of the seemingly endless stream of cruise missiles coming in from Belarus and the Black Sea and doing what they can to harass Russian jets flying near the front.
Su-25s close support fighters and the last few Su-24 strike jets still intact perform sporadic air strikes and flyovers to boost morale among the ground forces.
Though limited, these actions are vital to Ukraine’s defense. The country’s bast distances mean that a strike jet can sometimes provide fire support when no artillery or rockets are available.
Even thinning the number of missiles reaching Ukraine’s cities and logistics lines has benefits that can’t be ignored.
Nor can the threat posed to Russian operations by the mere possibility of Ukrainian jets launching standoff missiles against ground targets detected by drones or ground troops.
Recently, for example, evidence has emerged that US-made HARM anti-radiation missiles have been successfully integrated with Ukraine’s surviving jets. This weapon seeks out sources of electromagnetic transmissions, like radars or electronic warfare systems, which have to be active to work while its seeker head does not.
This sort of weapon can be mounted on a jet alongside air-to-air missiles and other forms of air-to ground missiles, letting it switch roles at the flip of a switch — literally, in many models — maximizing the potential of a given sortie near the front.
Giving Ukraine more modern jets will open up an array of interesting options for making Russia’s occupation and any further major offensives extremely difficult.
It is absolutely vital that it happens soon enough to assist with Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations over the coming months.
Ukraine’s wishy-washy partners in the West have delayed too long already. Had work begun to this effect six months ago, Ukraine might already be capable of at least securing its own skies, stopping the endless rain of civilian slaughtering Russian missiles.
The best aircraft for Ukraine be on the small side, reasonably rugged, and multirole. It will need to be optimized for low-level flight, but fast and maneuverable enough to escape attack.
And fortunately for Ukraine, quite a few models fit this bill nicely.
Back in the Cold War, the need for this precise role was identified and acted on, back when aircraft design was a truly competitive process in the USA, before most companies wound up merging or being bought up.
The (now) Boeing-owned F-18 Hornet and (now) Lockheed-owned F-16 Falcon are battle-tested American designs used by countries all around the world. The Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Dassault Rafale are all newer than the Hornet and Falcon and have the advantage of being built in Europe, where people feel the Russian threat quite strongly these days.
These five aircraft types are all operated by countries sympathetic to Ukraine, and any could form the foundation of Ukraine’s next-generation air force, which needs at least sixty multirole jets, and probably more.
It’s worth looking at each of these five commonly mooted options in turn.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, often called the Viper by its pilots, is widely known and liked and has been built in the thousands. It’s a fairly inexpensive and easy to maintain jet that has been the choice of US-friendly air forces on a budget for three decades now. It’s got maneuverability, multirole capabilities, and a deep reservoir of maintainers and trainers across the globe.
That all might make the F-16 seem the runaway favorite, but there is a catch: the jet is so widely used that spare parts are always in high demand. One of the barriers to giving Ukraine old Mig-29 jets from Poland and Slovakia early on in the conflict was the lack of F-16s ready to send to cover their duties.
Taiwan might well need to rely heavily on F-16 parts in the near future, and Israel always has a need for replacements given how much it uses its air force against everyone its leaders think is a threat... which is just about everybody.
These concerns are why the F-18 Hornet is worth a close look. Like the F-16, it has been around for many years and proven itself against ground and air targets across decades of American wars. In addition, the Hornet was designed to withstand the rigors of operating from aircraft carriers, which means the jets are already built for handling rugged conditions and being repaired in rough conditions.
The Hornet also has two engines, which is both more normal for Ukrainian pilots and likely safer in the event of battle damage. It is known to have excellent low altitude performance and can be outfitted with more weapons of more varieties, generally speaking, than the slightly smaller and simpler F-16.
The F-18 is a bit more expensive and has been adopted by fewer countries than the F-16, but in Ukraine’s case that could turn into something of an advantage because of who the F-18’s users are. The US Navy and Marine Corps both still operate the base model while they wait for F-35s to be built, as do others including Australia, Canada, Finland, and Spain — all strong supporters of Ukraine.
And of these, only Finland faces an immediate military threat — Australia is already replacing its Hornet fleet with F-35s and Canada is set to as well in the near future, while both are close US allies that could be compensated with deployments of US jets for the next few years. As the Navy and Marines are also looking to replace their Hornet fleets in the near future and also to integrate more drones into their force structure, the timing might be perfect for Ukraine.
Given the Biden Administration’s hesitation to do all it truly could to back Ukraine, despite all its fluffy rhetoric, There are certain advantages to shopping more local. So the three European jets are worth taking a close look at too.
The Eurofighter Typhoon was designed for the air defense role, and though relatively expensive has been around long enough to prove itself. Used by Ukraine supporters like the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain, of the five it is likely the absolute best for dealing with cruise missiles thanks to its speed and maneuverability. It would likely be superior to any Russian combat jet in the skies, too.
Where it might run into trouble, however, is in its ability to operate from remote bases, something it wasn’t designed to do. And with only 500 or so built, the supply chain for the Typhoon isn’t extremely deep. It’s main users also have NATO obligations, so they might be reluctant to hand over a top-notch aircraft — if they’ve even been maintained properly, which might not be the case.
The Saab Gripen, on the other hand, out of Sweden, presents an interesting case. Smaller than the F-16, even nimbler, and newer, the Gripen was designed to work from stretches of highway in a war and handle a full range of missions while working in austere conditions. To do this it had to be simple to maintain and highly reliable, and as a result what it lacks in range and payload it makes up for by being able to operate from just about any paved surface.
It’s the closest thing to a guerilla jet fighter you’ll run across, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, the Gripen might seem ideal. However: it is scarcely battle tested and half as many have been built as the Typhoon, plus it comes with only one engine. Not only that, but Sweden is now on the front lines, in an aviation sense, of any NATO confrontation with Russia, so it might not be keen to give up its main defense system.
The Dassault Rafale is also a contender, and it’s kind of a blend of the best characteristics of the Typhoon, Gripen, and Hornet. French in origin, it was used extensively in the NATO air war on Libya in 2011 where it performed well. Dassault jets have a reputation for being solid, and the Rafale in certain models is also operate from aircraft carriers, implying a degree of ruggedness that pair well with its explicitly multirole design.
It’s weaknesses are that only a few hundred have been built, so supply chains are no deeper than you have with the Gripen. French equipment is NATO standard but you’re dealing with a single government, likely offsetting the Rafale’s lower operating costs compared to the Typhoon.
It is true that other countries make and sell fighter jets, of course, but South Korea and Japan are only just starting to build these designs at scale, so logistics remain a concern. And another US option I haven’t mentioned is the Boeing F-15 Eagle, which has been as widely exported in various configurations as the F-18 Hornet and used in numerous campaigns.
However, the Eagle is a big, powerful, expensive jet that is generally split between air superiority and ground attack devoted variants. It’s not the kind of jet that operates from remote bases, nor was it meant for low-altitude work, meaning that while it would dominate when in the skies it might simply be too vulnerable to keep intact on the ground.
All things considered, if Kyiv has to choose a single fighter design, my recommendation is to go with the Hornet.
I do have a bias here — as a kid, my childhood dream was to fly Hornets for the US Navy. I spent more hours than I care to count “flying” combat missions in Janes Navy Fighters over southern Ukraine back in the 1990s, when it was still conceivable for the US to sail an aircraft carrier into the Black Sea to defend an ally against invasion.
Yet the balance of evidence backs the selection of the Hornet. The jet has the right balance of capability and availability that Ukraine needs, and to boot, they could even be delivered from aircraft carriers if needed to complicate Russia’s ability to mark their arrival or interfere with delivery.
Three squadrons with a total of sixty or so active aircraft spread across the country and armed with modern missiles would make a world of difference to Ukraine. Hornets also have the advantage of being designed to go after cruise missiles targeting US Navy carriers, many of these are the exact same models being repurposed to (inaccurately) pummel cities in Ukraine today.
They’re excellent in the air to ground role as well, particularly if used as strike jets should be these days — using long-range precision missiles from behind friendly lines.
Of course, speaking of that particular mission, there is one other aircraft that must be considered for Ukraine given the attrition its Su-25 ground attack jets must be facing:
The venerable A-10 Thunderbolt, a legendary jet also known as the Warthog.
But not for that big epic brrt this predator of the skies is most famous for, a sound guaranteed to send a chill down your spine if ever you hear it — also if you remember the 30mm shells are tipped with depleted uranium, which when vaporized creates carcinogenic dust.
Instead, Ukraine needs A-10s to use their incredible endurance to loiter near the battlefield, shooting precision weapons into Russian-held territory as needed like airborne rocket launchers.
In addition to the usual complement of ground attack missiles, Warthogs can also be armed with HARM missiles to hit the electronic warfare gear that prevents Ukrainian drones from flying past the front lines to strike Russian artillery. They are slow enough to be able to use heat-seeking missiles to take down Russian drones.
And have I mentioned the things can take a beating and keep on flying? Fly from improvised bases as well as a Gripen? Are about as cheap to operate as a combat jet can be? Can act as forward observers for artillery?
The Warthog fans are right: Ukraine absolutely needs A-10s, at least a squadron’s worth.
A Hornet/Warthog pairing might just be the ideal team to turn the tide of the war over Ukraine’s skies.
The beauty of jets with long range missiles is that the enemy can’t just ignore them.
Building up Ukraine’s air force means that more of Russia’s own fighters will have to operate at lower altitudes and closer to the front lines.
Right into the range of Ukraine’s SAM systems, which could set some beautiful aerial ambushes.
If Ukraine is ever to counterattack and throw the Russians out of its lands once and for all, it needs more and better jets.
And it needed them yesterday.