The Hill


The logjam on supplies to Ukraine may be starting to crack.

Last week Norway sent two F-16 fighters to Denmark to train Ukrainian pilots. Similarly, after Russia’s monstrous airstrikes, the United Kingdom is sending about 200 short-range air-to-air defense missiles to Ukraine.

Hopefully, these actions will galvanize both Congress and the administration not only to move quickly to give Ukraine the weapons it needs but also to formulate and execute a strategy for victory.

Short-range assets, for all their utility, are not sufficient. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has stated, Ukraine needs long-range strike assets capable of striking targets of more than 300 kilometers. Washington and its allies must also reverse their stance on Ukraine striking Russian targets with Western weapons to bring the war home to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to deprive Russia’s long-range platforms of sanctuary.

Although weapons are essential and our primary focus here, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the benefit of advanced weapons is only manifested in the execution of a winning strategy. This means that the West should stop playing by Putin’s rules and provide Ukraine with what it needs. NATO should give Kyiv the necessary tools and let it finish the job.

For example, the U.S. Air Force intends to retire a lot of aircraft this year, pending congressional approval. Many of these jets could make valuable contributions to Ukraine’s critical air defense effort. Otherwise, Ukraine will struggle with its fleet of ancient Soviet jets and the handful of ex-NATO F-16s promised to date.

In fact, as Washington retires old systems, it would be well advised to transfer retired systems off its books to Ukraine en masse. These systems can strike at Russian aircraft and domestic targets, reducing Moscow’s ability to destroy Ukraine’s civilian and defense infrastructure — for which, by the way, nobody is protesting in the streets.

The air war over Ukraine has been intensive, sustained and brutal, and comparable to the World War II Nazi blitz against the British Isles. Russia’s strategy has followed that approach to a remarkable degree.

Russia initially tried to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defenses with a deluge of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, anti-radiation missiles and bombs. This effort failed and cost Russia dozens of aircraft and aircrew and many cruise missiles.

Frustrated, the Russians shifted to attacks on “soft” civilian targets — electricity infrastructure, warehouses, granaries, ports and other similar targets.

As Russia’s stock of cruise missiles dwindled, Russia switched to much cheaper Iranian-supplied Shahed suicide drones and Cold War relics like supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and repurposed air defense missiles.

This bombardment won’t stop even after Russia expels its troops from Ukrainian territory.  Hence the need for consistent supplies and NATO membership to deter the Kremlin.

This also explains the need to urgently replenish Ukrainian air defenses, which are in danger of breaking down. NATO donations of legacy Soviet MiG-29A fighters and Su-25 attack jets covered combat losses but could not solve the more fundamental problem of a weakened, shrinking, obsolete and worn-out fleet of combat aircraft. Ukraine’s air force has stated repeatedly that 200-250 Western-supplied combat aircraft will be needed to replace the legacy fleet and bring it up to full strength.

As new jets take years to deliver, Ukraine has had to settle for retired European NATO nation F-16 AM/BM MLU jets, the first of which are expected to deliver in the coming weeks. These donations might address half of the need for replacement fighters, so Ukraine has sought alternatives.

Retired Swedish Gripens and Finnish F/A-18s were requested, but neither will be available this year. Conversely, mothballed U.S. Air Force F-15C/D and F-16C/D are available now, and more will become available with intended retirements.

Kyiv’s December “shopping list” that was leaked to the media included F-16C and F/A-18 fighters, and unexpectedly, C-17A airlifters. NATO could provide many of these systems through surplus U.S. Air Force jets that would perform better in many key roles than the requested types.

For one example, the F-15C/D Eagle slated for retirement is a superior substitute to both the F-16 and F/A-18 in the air defense role and is available in good numbers. The F-15’s biggest advantage is its size, conferring superior persistence in combat, as it carries a much larger load of fuel and missiles. Whether hunting Shaheds or cruise missiles, or patrolling the Black Sea, persistence is critical.

More than 150 F-15C/D fighters are collecting dust in Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group storage, a third of which were put out to pasture over the last two years, with more planned for this year. Fifty F-15C/D are enough to equip a Ukrainian fighter wing, covering 20 percent of their fleet replacement needs. AMARG also hosts around 150 F-16C/D fighters, with more to arrive, that could be used to backfill Ukraine’s fleet.

Similarly, one alternative to the now obsolete C-17 is the most recently retired C-5A Galaxy airlifters stored in AMARG. Another is the KC-10 Extender dual role tanker-transports, retired in 2021. While the KC-10 is not a roll-on roll-off airlifter, typically 80 percent of airlifted materiel is palletized and thus compatible with a KC-10.Clearly, the Biden administration has very good alternatives available to address Ukraine’s most critical needs in air power quickly, making use of inactive U.S. Air Force aircraft. Doing so would deny Russia one of its last

asymmetric strategic advantages in this war, providing a strong incentive for Moscow to end it quickly.

However, Congress and the administration must also step up to their responsibilities and help Ukraine formulate and execute a winning strategy; for in this war, there is truly no substitute for victory.


Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow and independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.