Ukraine’s Air Force Could Soon Fly U.S. Fighter Jets


The U.S. Air Force signaled last week that it’s willing to send A-10 Warthog planes to Ukraine, but Ukrainian pilots are more interested in flying F-16 Fighting Falcons—and there’s a good chance they’ll get them. The offer to send A-10 ground-attack planes comes at a time when the United States and the rest of NATO are auditing their arsenals for weapons to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion and take back lost territory.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and Air Force Chief of Staff C.Q. Brown spoke at the annual Aspen Security Forum that took place between July 19–22. In response to questions about which aircraft the Air Force wanted to divest to Ukraine, Kendall mentioned the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Kendall also noted that the decision about which planes to send is “largely up to the Ukrainians … older U.S. systems are a possibility.”

The service conceived of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the “Warthog,” in the late 1960s as a heavy ground-attack aircraft designed to provide close air support over the modern battlefield. The A-10, armed with a seven-barrel, GAU-8/A 30-millimeter cannon, can also carry air-to-ground missiles, rockets, and guided bombs. The A-10 was designed to attack Warsaw Pact tank columns and can take on tremendous damage over the battlefield and still remain in the sky.

The A-10 has been in service for decades: the average age of the Air Force’s 281-strong Warthog fleet is 40 years. Forty years ago, air defenses at low altitudes typically consisted of small-caliber cannons, at best controlled by radar, and relatively primitive shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles like the SA-7 Strela. Since then, however, the threat to the A-10 has evolved to include a greater number of guided missiles with much greater accuracy, and more advanced weapons such as the SA-14 and SA-16.

The A-10 was originally designed to fly combat missions over Western Europe, using terrain to mask its approach and departure. In the 1980s, a typical mission might see an A-10 approaching at low altitude, keeping a row of hills or even mountains between it and the target. The A-10 would fly up and over the hills, drop a string of Rockeye cluster bombs on a column of Soviet tanks, then quickly escape by flying over another set of hills. The tactics kept the A-10 hidden as long as possible from enemy defenses.

This sort of attack would be impossible in Ukraine; Eastern Ukraine is as flat as the American Midwest, and the only real protection an A-10 would have is Earth’s own curvature. An observer on the front line would spot a low-flying A-10 from much farther away—and some of them would be carrying surface-to-air missiles.

Ukrainian aircraft flying the same types of low-altitude, high-risk missions as the A-10 have incurred heavy casualties. The Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) currently flies the Su-25 “Frogfoot” ground-attack aircraft, a contemporary of the A-10. Of 17 Su-25s in service with the UAF before the war, eight, or more than half, have been shot down.

Shortly after news reports about the A-10 came out, Ukrainian military leaders made it clear the A-10 was not actually something they wanted. The Ukrainians would rather have something “fast and versatile” like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a multi-role fighter currently being replaced in the Air Force’s inventory by the F-35. The F-16’s speed and maneuverability would have a decent chance of successfully dogfighting Russian fighters.

Ukraine’s adoption of an American-made jet would also allow its air force to access America’s vast arsenal of high-tech guided munitions. American AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles would be much better at downing Russian fighters and cruise missiles than Ukraine’s aging missile inventory. An F-16 can carry air-to-ground weapons with greater ranges than the A-10, including the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon and the AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation missile. F-16s could even attack Russian warships with AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

If Ukraine chooses American fighters, it will likely find training for its pilots already paid for. The proposed U.S. defense budget for 2023 includes $100 million for the training of Ukrainian fighter pilots on American planes. The provision has rare bipartisan support in Congress, and will likely be part of the final budget when President Biden signs it. By early 2023, we could see Ukrainian F-16s patrolling the country’s skies. That would have been unthinkable in early 2022, but war tends to make the unthinkable, thinkable.

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