Ukraine, faced with Russian troops on two fronts, has gone public with plans to buy combat aircraft that are not Russian-made. The vulnerable NATO partner plans to become independent of Vladimir Putin’s military in a crucial domain.
Unlike Poland, which has been operating a “mixed” fleet of US and Russian-made aircraft, Ukraine is evaluating wholesale replacement of all its Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-27s. This would make Ukraine a more effective NATO partner, but defense analysts caution there are critical short-term issues which should be a top priority for Washington’s policy-makers.
Buying US aircraft would enhance Ukraine’s interoperability with NATO, critically important for a nation that has the longest border with Russia. But, say retired western military personnel currently advising Ukraine’s armed forces, DC policymakers will have to commit to an unprecedented level of support for this beleaguered former vassal state of Moscow.
“The first step is that the US transferring a large tranche of hardware to Ukraine ASAP,” one former UK officer here said. Then, ”there is even more potentially politically unpalatable decision of placing a contingent of US military personnel here in Ukraine to conduct a years-long training program in how to utilize this new hardware – the proverbial ‘boots on the ground.’ Could this provoke Moscow? Yes. But with this country being surrounded by legions of troops and heavy equipment and the Kremlin acting like it is prepping for an invasion, how much worse could the reaction from the Russians be?
Arming Ukraine with the latest variants of US fighter aircraft will take a long time. A recent op-ed by a long-time US analyst of the Russian military, Stephen Blank, proposes sending Ukraine F-15C/D, E-2C-2000 Hawkeye AWACS, and KC-135R airborne tankers immediately. There are Excess Defense Articles (EDA) aircraft now in storage in the US. The older F-15s could be upgraded (as they are being done for Japan) and later supplemented with new-build F-15EX models.
Ukraine lacks the required financial resources not only to procure these aircraft. It also needs support equipment, smart munitions, cruise missiles such as JASSM. Weaponry would have to be supplied right off a production line or from existing stocks in order to be delivered in an effective time frame. Such a package of materiel provided to Ukraine gratis also might be a hard sell.
A parallel dilemma is the US effort to prevent sale of the Ukraine’s Motor Sich aircraft engine business in Zaparozhiye to a Chinese firm, Beijing Skyrizon. US intelligence estimates that if China’s defense sector acquires this strategically important technology it would significantly aid their efforts to build more capable fighter aircraft. China still depends on engines imported from Russia. To date the PRC has failed to design reliable power plants on its own.
US industry officials tell Breaking Defense that Washington officialdom has pushed them to buy the Motor Sich and take it off the market. But, said one executive, “the same bureaucrats are unaware of the labyrinth of export control regulations that US industry must comply with — regulations that prevent an American firm from acquiring and working with a Ukrainian company.”
Only France Can Solve Ukraine’s Financial And Military Procurement Headaches
A solution for Ukraine to this knotty policy problem may lie in France’s aerospace sector The French are moving faster than Washington and are reportedly ready to propose a tranche of Dassault Rafale fighters to Ukraine. French media have say this sale will be at a priority agenda item when President Macron makes a state visit to Kiev later this year. “The French president believes in the Rafale’s chances of winning in this former bastion of Russian industry,” reported the French news site Aerotime Hub. “Paris has an advantage: its commercial system capable of supporting such a contract is already in place.” The Rafale would be “85 per cent guaranteed by France, and the French Ministry of the Economy and Finance reportedly already earmarked a budget of €1.5 billion for this purpose.”
Despite the Ukrainian Air Force’s preference for the US F-15EX, a purchase of the Rafale could carry the day – and solve a vexing problem for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. There are rumors that Ukraine would be rewarded for buying the Rafale with a pledge that the French aerospace and defense group SAFRAN would acquire Motor Sich. This would keep the business running and its personnel employed, averting a major unemployment headache for the Ukrainian President – and would also please Washington by keeping the company out of Chinese hands.
Supporting A Non-NATO Ally
Ukraine’s need for new weaponry has been brought into stark relief by recent Russian troop movements in Ukraine’s Donbas region and in Crimea, both invaded and illegally occupied by Moscow more than seven years ago. The Kremlin bills them as exercises, but there are reports of these Russian units now training with groups of pro-Russian separatist forces.
“As Putin prepares for 19 September parliamentary elections, threatening the invasion of Ukraine takes on added importance,” a former NATO headquarters official told me. “This is attacking NATO’s weakest link – nations (like Ukraine) where there are still many officials with links to Russia.”
A US failure to make a firm stand in the face of these Russian moves does more than just potentially undermine the credibility of the alliance, a Polish defense analyst says: “It would also disrupt Washington’s efforts to sell American-made hardware to these nations. If Ukraine and others can operate and support US aircraft it becomes markedly easier for a US-NATO force to deploy into these forward areas. Having that infrastructure here in Poland and elsewhere in the region has a deterrent effect all its own.”
This is not lost on Moscow. Another nation that has signed to procure US aircraft, Bulgaria, has just broken up a Russian spy ring charged with collecting technical data for Russian intelligence and has booted some of Moscow’s diplomats –a total of five expulsions since October 2019.
According to sources in Bulgaria, the data included information on the F-16V Block 70, the latest-generation model of the F-16 fighter, and its AN/APG-83 AESA radar previously selected for procurement by the Bulgarian Air Force.
“If Ukraine can be destabilzed by military action before it re-arms, or Bulgaria’s trustworthiness brought into question, Putin can cause immeasurable problems for the Biden administration,” the former NATO official said.
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