Ukraine says it will now push for Western fourth-generation fighter jets such as the American F-16 after securing dozens of high-end battle tanks from NATO allies.
Ukraine won a huge boost for its troops as the United States and Germany announced plans to provide heavy tanks for Kyiv on Wednesday.
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“The next big hurdle will now be the fighter jets,” said Yuriy Sak, who advises defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
“If we get them the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense … It’s not just F-16s, fourth-generation aircraft, this is what we want.”
Ukraine’s air force has a fleet of ageing Soviet-era fighter jets that came off the assembly line before Kyiv even declared independence more than 31 years ago. The warplanes are used for intercept missions and to attack Russian positions.
Western military support has been vital for Kyiv and has rapidly evolved during the war. Before the Russian invasion, even the idea of supplying lethal aid to Ukraine was highly controversial, but Western supplies have since shattered taboo after taboo.
“They didn’t want to give us heavy artillery, then they did. They didn’t want to give us HIMARS systems, then they did. They didn’t want to give us tanks, now they’re giving us tanks. Apart from nuclear weapons, there is nothing left that we will not get,” Sak said.
Not a chance
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said there was no chance of fighter jets being sent to Ukraine.
“I made it clear very early on that we are not talking about combat aircraft, and I am doing the same here,” he said in the Bundestag.
Scholz added, “We will not send ground troops under any circumstances. I have said there will be no direct involvement of NATO soldiers in the Ukraine war. That has not been the case so far and that will not be the case in the future. And everyone can rely on that.”
Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia last February, has also said it wants to receive long-range missiles from the West.
Moscow reacted furiously on Wednesday after Germany approved the delivery to Ukraine of Leopard 2 tanks, the workhorse of armies across Europe, a decision certain to gird Ukraine’s offensive power.
Germany has agreed to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, with the US also expected to confirm the supply of M1 Abrams vehicles. But what’s so vital about tanks?
We asked a Ukrainian officer on the front line, to explain ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/yr8otoXpMs
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 25, 2023
‘Preventing war from escalating’
Scholz said Western allies would keep supporting Ukraine, but he also highlighted the danger of further inflaming the conflict.
“We must always make it clear in everything we do that we are doing what is necessary and possible to support Ukraine, but that at the same time, we are preventing the war from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO,” Scholz said.
Justin Bronk, a researcher at the RUSI think tank in London, said Ukraine’s air force would benefit greatly from NATO fighter jets in terms of air-to-air and potentially air-to-ground lethality.
But he said on Twitter they would still be at high risk from Russian surface-to-air missiles, forcing them to fly very low near the front line, something that “would dramatically reduce effective missile range and limit strike options”.
A Ukrainian pilot codenamed Juice told Reuters news agency last month many of his peers were taking English lessons in their free time in anticipation that Kyiv would one day receive foreign aircraft, such as the F-16.
‘Also need attack helicopters’
Last week, allies pledged billions of dollars’ worth of military aid including hundreds of armoured fighting vehicles and troop carriers. Those are seen as more effective for attacking enemy lines when used alongside tanks.
Ukraine sees the weapons as restoring its momentum in a war that has lately become a bloody, deadlocked slog.
Former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko told Euronews the next significant weapon system needed from the West is fighter aircraft.
“We also need attack helicopters and long-range missiles to reach logistic bases and Russian commanding centres. We should receive these now before Russia attempts its great spring offensive,” Poroshenko said.
“The real game changer now is the jet fighter. We should immediately launch training programmes for Ukrainian pilots and prepare to deliver them to Ukraine.”