Western Fighter Pledge Prompts Ukrainian Air Force Revamp


Credit: U.S. National Guard

A promised supply of Western fighter jets has prompted a comprehensive review within Ukraine’s air force of its structure, training and logistics needs, Ukraine President Vladimir Zelenskyy said on May 24. 

“Work has begun on a comprehensive concept of the development of our aviation, taking into account the transition to new types of aircraft,” Zelenskyy said on his Telegram social media account. 

The review follows U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement at the G7 Summit that he will not block training of Ukrainian fighter pilots and transfers of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, reversing months of opposition to the proposal despite increasingly urgent pleas from Kyiv. 

But U.S. defense officials have declined to provide a firm timetable for supplying the training and aircraft. Simply arranging F-16 training of Ukrainian fighter pilots on European bases could take “weeks or months,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said. 

In the meantime, the Ukraine air force is preparing to make best use of the Western-supplied fighters. The air force entered the war in February 2022 with about 130 aircraft split between fleets of Su-24s, Su-25s, MiG-29s and Su-27s. About 60 Ukrainian aircraft had been destroyed during the war through early March, according to comments by Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. 

Any Western combat aircraft supplied to Ukraine must cope with infrastructure and an organizational structure built by the Soviet Union. In the years before Russia’s latest invasion, Ukrainian pilots were seeking to adapt to Western-style combat tactics, which are highlighted by decentralized control and tactical flexibility. 

Ukraine’s infrastructure was also designed to support Soviet-style combat jets, with rugged features that make them less susceptible to damage by foreign object debris (FOD). The F-16, by contrast, has proven capable of operating in a wide variety of conditions, but lacks certain features, such as the automatic FOD protection doors on the Mikoyan MiG-29, that are often necessary for Ukrainian bases.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.