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Why MiG Fighter Jets Are Not The Answer To Ukraine’s Problems

The first four NATO-donated MiG-29 fighter jets have arrived in Ukraine, Slovakia’s defense ministry announced on Thursday.

“We as a country have written ourselves in capital letters in modern world history, which speak of timely help,” Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said. Yet even with NATO nations now crossing a “red line” with fighter jets, these aircraft still fail to meet Kyiv’s loud demands for Western-made advanced jets such as F-16s.

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Slovakia committed a first tranche of MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine. Warsaw will send four of the Soviet-era fighter jets, while Bratislava has volunteered 13.

Eduard Heger, the prime minister of Slovakia, said the country would be “on the right side of history,” adding that “promises must be kept.”

While some judge the move to be an escalation of the conflict, the military advantages of additional MiG-29s are not a game-changer, experts have told Newsweek. The political consequences, however, may be.

“This is far more symbolic as a gesture than it is actually improving the ability of the Ukrainians to wage war in the air with the Russians,” according to former British Air Commodore Andrew Curtis. While not a revolutionary move, it’s one that experts argue could be banking on a domino effect of military aid.

But that is not to say the MiG-29 donations will not be welcomed. Far from it—there are numerous short-term benefits of sending Ukraine additional Soviet-era fighters.

Ahead of officially offering the jets, Polish President Andrzej Duda told CNN that Warsaw was “ready” to provide operational MiG-29 jets, adding that Ukrainian pilots would “be ready to use those planes instantly.”

This is one of the real advantages of the MiG-29s, experts say. Ukraine has “pilots who are experienced in operating them who they can put into those airframes immediately,” David Jordan, co-director of the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London, UK, told Newsweek.

And the timing corresponds to Ukraine’s time-sensitive needs. “Receiving aircraft soon is also particularly urgent for Kyiv, given the likelihood of Ukrainian offensives in the spring and summer that would benefit from any added air support,” James Black, assistant director of the Defense and Security research group at RAND Europe, told Newsweek.

The planes will help with a “decisive military breakthrough in the near-term,” he added.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in the days running up the announcement that NATO countries could soon furnish Ukraine with fighter jets, suggesting a timetable of the “coming four to six weeks.”

Providing more MiGs for Ukraine is “certainly” beneficial, because it increases the amount of aircraft Ukraine can have in the air, but it also helps ease issues with maintenance and how quickly planes can be deployed, Black said.

“Essentially, they will be very helpful for prolonging Ukraine’s ability to essentially keep doing what it’s been doing for most of the war,” Justin Bronk, senior research fellow in airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, UK, told Newsweek.

The MiG-29s will help Ukraine keep up defensive fighter patrols, intercept missiles and drones, and launch attacks on Russian targets, he said. But there are no new capabilities offered by the MiGs—it is about replenishing losses and expanding current operations, Bronk added.

It’s not known exactly how many aircraft Ukraine still has in its air force. It is estimated that it had between 20 and 36 MiG-29s in February 2022. Confirmed losses suggest it may have lost around 18 of these, but the precise figure is hard to pin down. Certainly, Kyiv has sustained “significant losses” through Russian counter-air operations, ground-based air defenses, and attacks on Ukraine’s airbases, Black said.

“Any Western contribution of material to help replenish these losses would be significant,” he added.

MiG-29s from Slovakia and Poland will replace Ukrainian stocks, but not quite on a like-for-like basis, former UK military officer Frank Ledwidge told Newsweek. Despite small differences between MiG-29 variants, they will enable Ukraine to continue successful air operations.

The MiG-29 is an easier aircraft to service than the F-16, and changing or patching up avionics is a simpler process in the less technologically advanced aircraft, experts say. It is also a more rugged aircraft with a hardier undercarriage, better suited to the dispersed operations and less reliable runways Ukrainian pilots often deal with. The ground crews and engineers are well-equipped to work with MiG-29s and help them to operate at full capacity, experts say.

These older fighter jets are “the right thing for Ukraine right now,” Ledwidge said, “for the simple reason that Ukraine’s aircrew and ground crew can work on these and use them.”

The F-16 jets that Ukraine has long called for are unsuitable for these very reasons. Unlikely to cope well with any form of debris, the F-16 arriving in Ukraine would mark a “fundamental shift” not just in how sophisticated a platform Kyiv’s pilots operate, but everything about the ecosystem it exists in, according to experts.

The first four NATO-donated MiG-29 fighter jets have arrived in Ukraine, Slovakia’s defense ministry announced on Thursday.

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