Ukraine needs fighter jets to counter Russia’s changing military approach. The US should learn from last year’s delay over tank deliveries and approve their release as soon as possible
28 April 2023
European Council on Foreign Relations
In the eyes of most Western analysts, the Russian strategic missile campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure has failed. Ukraine is still producing enough electricity to keep its economy afloat while Russia has expended most of its long-range precision weapons on the effort. Nevertheless, Russia continues to assault Ukraine. In recent weeks, it has used cheap Iranian drones to attack the cities of Odesa and Kharkiv in particular. Russia did not target specific infrastructure, but rather resorted to indiscriminate terror bombing.
Ukraine is in the middle of transitioning to Western weapons systems, with its stocks for Soviet legacy systems now largely used up. This means that, for the time being, Kyiv has only a small amount of medium to long range systems which it can use to protect only a low number of critical objects. (The situation is less critical with short-range systems, stocks of which are in better supply.) The aim of Russia’s recent drone attacks is therefore to keep Ukraine’s ground-based air defence systems busy defending cities and far away from the front line, where Moscow is hoping to make progress in the near term.
At the same time, the Russian air force is increasing its activity in Ukraine’s east, including experimenting with new tactics to attack Ukrainian lines. As part of these forays, it is increasingly using cheap glide-bomb kits for its conventional bombs. This particular type of bomb allows Russia’s forces to stay beyond the range of Ukraine’s air defence systems. When aircraft fly high, glide bombs can reach targets 40-70km beyond the point of release with the planes being able to remain out of reach of short-range air defence systems on the front line. Ukraine has positioned its longer-ranged missile systems far behind the front to protect them from attacks by Russian battlefield drones or artillery, effectively meaning they are tied up there and unable to be deployed closer to the front.
All this means that the only way for Ukraine to counter such glide-bomb attacks is to use fighter jets.
But Ukraine’s fighter force is facing severe disadvantages. Russian fighters have a greater range thanks to their advanced radar and missiles. The main armament used by Ukraine’s Mig-29 and Su-27 fighters is the Artem R-27. But, with a range of 75km, the Artem R-27 is outranged by the Russian Vympel R-37M, which can travel at least 300km, and by the Vympel R-77, which can travel up to 190km. This asymmetry means that Ukrainian fighters need to get close to opponent Russia aircraft, and have to effectively sneak up, hugging the ground to avoid detection.
In addition, the Ukrainian missile is a semi-active radar homing missile, which requires constant radar illumination of the target by the Ukrainian fighter. Russia’s R-37 and R-77 also have their own active radar seeker, which enables the Russian fighter to turn away once it has released the missile, with the missile then finding its target independently. In contrast, once Ukrainian fighters illuminate a Russian target, they are at immediate risk of becoming the hunted themselves, by other fighters lying in wait and equipped with long-range missiles. And during the course of the war, the Russian air force has improved its ambush tactics, while over the same period Ukraine has lost around half of its fighter force.
The heralded Ukrainian counter-offensive will be a test case for the ability of the Russian air force to adapt during this war. It abjectly failed to foil Ukraine’s Kharkiv counter-offensive in September 2022. Ukrainian short-range air defence missiles and guns such as the Gepard shot down Russian ground attack aircraft trying to fire unguided missiles. The coordination between Russia’s ground and air forces was slow and cumbersome and its fighters were never in the right spot at the right time. Now, however, extensive fortifications in the Russian rear may slow Ukrainian advances at least long enough to allow Russian aircraft to strike the forces clearing obstacles. And the use of glide-bombs allows these aircraft to strike from beyond the Gepard’s range. To screen the ground forces from such attacks, the Ukrainian air force will have to come out, at least to disrupt Russian attacks. This may therefore mean the counter-offensive will be made up of costly battles of attrition.
For this very reason, the Ukrainian government and armed forces have started to campaign for the release of Western fighter jets to Ukraine. And it is not only aircraft but also ammunition that is of particular interest. For its NASMAS air defence systems, Ukraine has already received AIM-120 active radar homing missiles, which do not require constant radar illumination. However, these missiles can also be fired from a variety of Western aircraft, such as the F-16, F-18, Gripen, and others. And Western aircraft radars are also better at hiding themselves while scanning and tracking targets in comparison with Soviet radars from the late 1980s, which Ukraine is using. All this would make attacks against Russian aircraft much less risky from Western aircraft, even though Russian missiles will still outrange American missiles.
Furthermore, the Artem plant close to Kyiv, which used to produce Ukraine’s R-27 missiles, was heavily damaged by Russian missile strikes in April 2022 and by a follow-on attack in June the same year. While some of Ukraine’s ammunition producers have since resumed production after relocating to safer areas, Artem’s capabilities to supply and replenish the Ukrainian air force’s arsenal remains doubtful. In the short term, this makes the Western decision on supplying fighters even more urgent. In the long term, one can use the opportunity of relocating Artem to consider upgrading the R-27, such as by introducing a Western active radar-seeker to it. This would increase the usefulness of Ukraine’s aging fighter fleet – but will take time to materialise.
Unfortunately, the White House is dragging its feet over deciding whether to release Western aircraft for delivery to Ukraine. Most usable and available spare aircraft in the West (F-16 and F-18, which now are to be replaced by F-35 in a number of countries) are American-made, which means that such a decision needs US approval. In this regard, Washington is as pivotal as Berlin
was last year with regard to main battle tanks. And the American excuses so far are strikingly similar to those deployed by the German chancellery during 2022.
The difficulty for Kyiv is that it is much harder to raise the pressure on Washington than it is on Berlin. Ultimately, the saga with the German-made Leopard II tanks shows that such delaying is ultimately unsustainable. But if the United States eventually agrees to deliver Western aircraft as Ukraine runs increasingly short of materiel, the process will end up rushed, and equipment repair and refit will have to take place under considerable pressure, with an anxious international audience gazing on. If Washington is to learn anything from Berlin’s painful experience with arms delivery debates, it should not wait too long to act.