While Ukraine may have weathered the storm of Russia’s initial onslaught and retaliated with a force and determination largely thought to have been beyond them, it remains too early to indulge in triumphalism, and the hunger for Kyiv’s war effort will remain far from sated for the foreseeable future.
The issue of aircraft has been as continual as it is confusing. A number of former Communist bloc countries have offered planes, but only if the United States will give its tacit approval. Poland, for instance, was quick to suggest that it donate its Soviet-era aircraft – with which Ukrainian pilots would already be familiar – on condition that the US replace their planes with American F-16s.
As with all of the suggestions made by Warsaw since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, the idea is grounded in sound military logic but requires the courage to once again raise the stakes, and President Joe Biden has categorically refused to supply Ukraine with military aircraft.
At this point, one may reasonably wonder why not. Initially, when the West was invested in Ukraine’s survival but not necessarily its victory – an investment which only cost it small arms that it could afford to send – the logic may have been understandable if not condonable. Yet now a number of NATO countries have donated equipment far beyond personal weapons, with tanks and artillery and anti-aircraft systems fall being sent to Kyiv.
This naturally begs the question at this stage of why a tank can be given but a plane cannot; they serve a similar enough purpose, after all. Furthermore, the idea put forward by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, that Ukraine ‘does not need’ military aircraft is as insulting as it is ignorant.
One wonders at the wisdom of having someone as a security advisor who has never served a day in his life in the military or law enforcement, especially as Russia’s blunders have largely stemmed from having the incompetent, untrained, and ill-informed in positions of authority.
Of course, Ukraine must provide answers of its own to questions surrounding the debate. “Give us planes!” is a recurring chant from Kyiv’s politicians, but at no point has anybody outlined how many pilots Ukraine has to fill any hypothetical squadrons. Even though the Ukrainian Air Force proudly shows on social media that it still has aircraft in the sky, it has certainly taken losses in personnel and planes. Even assuming that the pilots of shot-down aircraft ejected to safety, their numbers are hardly likely to be enough to entirely fill new squadrons.
In something of a lame gesture, the British Royal Air Force has offered to train new pilots but admitted it has no aircraft to supply. Quite how the RAF imagines it can train Ukrainians (a process which could take years) to fly planes that Britain doesn’t possess to either teach on and supply with is a question for the Sunak government to answer, but since the British Prime Minister is surrounded by advisors as demonstrably unfamiliar with Ukraine and military affairs as their counterparts in Washington, it is doubtful any sensible responses will be forthcoming.
The trajectory of going from supplying small arms to donating artillery and tanks suggests that aircraft are the next logical step as Russia shows no signs of giving in.
Kyiv and the West must have conversations about aircraft that are grounded in logic and devoid of jingoistic exhibitionism – if Ukraine has the pilots, the West must supply the planes.