Watch CBS News

Why the U.S. and Europe haven't given any Ukraine warplanes yet, but seem to be getting closer

Zelenskyy campaigns for weapons, EU admission
Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy campaigns for more weapons, EU membership in European tour 03:32

Ukraine's urgent request for western warplanes to boost its war capabilities against Russia poses a host of challenges that make an early delivery of such aircraft unlikely, experts said Thursday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated his call on allies Wednesday to provide his country with air power to combat the Russian invasion in an historic address to the British parliament.

He made the same demand in Paris where he met President Emmanuel Macron later in the day, and then again Thursday as he met in Brussels with all 27 leaders of the European Union.

President Zelensky Talks  At The European Parliament
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the European Parliament in the presence of all MEPs and parliamentary leaders in Brussels, Belgium, February 9, 2023. Omar Havana/Getty

The Ukrainian leader said he'd been told by at least some European leaders that he would eventually get fighter jets.

"Europe will be with us until our victory. I've heard it from a number of European leaders... about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft," Zelenskyy said at a news conference in Brussels.

"The sooner Ukraine gets long-range heavy weaponry, the sooner our pilots get planes, the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we can return to peace in Europe," he said in Paris the previous day.

Modern fighter jets would, experts say, give Ukraine an unprecedented ability to strike deep behind Russian lines, and to make it harder for Russian bombers to target Ukrainian territory with the current degree of impunity.

Kyiv's request is all the more urgent because Russian forces appear to have begun a major offensive in the eastern region of Luhansk.

Russian mercenaries on the “lies” that lured them to Ukraine 03:01

"Russian forces have regained the initiative in Ukraine," said researchers at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank.

Since the start of the war, Western governments have stalled on Zelenskyy's appeals for aircraft, mostly because they fear that deliveries of ultra-sophisticated warplanes would stoke tensions with nuclear-armed Russia and escalate the conflict — fear which Russia has stoked at every opportunity.

Again on Thursday the Kremlin warned that even discussions of supplying Ukraine with fighter jets led "to an escalation of tension around this conflict, drag out this conflict, make this conflict more painful."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Russian Embassy in London, for instance, had warned that if Britain decides to supply fighter jets to Kyiv, it "would have military and political consequences for the European continent and the whole world."

"Russia will find an answer to any unfriendly steps taken by the British side, including in the case of the supply of fighter jets to Ukraine," Peskov said. "We perceive this as, in fact, nothing more than the growing involvement of Great Britain, Germany, France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The line between indirect direct involvement is gradually disappearing. One can only express regret in this regard."

And while there have been no public commitments from the U.S. or Europe yet to send aircraft, experts note that the West's red lines in other areas have already shifted, including the opposition to delivering heavy tanks that was dropped in January.

For now at least, Washington will not give Ukraine Lockheed Martin-made F-16s, among the world's most-produced fighter planes.

Why Biden doesn't want to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine 06:14

The Netherlands, however, among the United States' European allies to own F-16s and currently in the process of upgrading to the more modern F-35s, said it could send some F-16s to Ukraine.

Others are also softening their stance.

Britain has offered to train Ukrainian fighter pilots, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's office said Wednesday he had tasked the defense secretary with "investigating what jets we might be able to give."

"But, to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability," a spokesman said.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that "nothing is ruled out."

One option would be to send 13 French fighters of the Mirage 2000-C type, built by Dassault, which were recently decommissioned "but still have a bit of potential," said one official close to the air force command who declined to be identified.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY A French Mirage 200
A French Mirage 2000C fighter jet takes part in a war games exercise in Antofagasta, Chile, October 26, 2009. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty

But the air force would first need to re-condition the planes, and train Ukrainian pilots who only know how to fly the Soviet-made aircraft that make up their entire air force.

Modern fighter aircraft require about six months of training for experienced pilots, which can be condensed to three months, but not less.

While a new fleet of Western aircraft would significantly boost Ukraine's capabilities, it alone would not necessarily be a game changer, experts caution.

Planes like the British air force's Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft and the F-16 are designed for operations from relatively smooth runways and not optimized for short-field landings on rough surfaces such as those prevalent in Ukraine, said Justin Bronk at the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defense and security think tank.

To operate either aircraft sustainably, "the Ukrainian air force would have to resurface and possibly extend its runways at key bases," he said. "But this would then be easily observed by Russian satellites and the bases would be struck by cruise and ballistic missiles."

In addition, the Typhoon is "fairly complex to maintain," Bronk said, requiring a significant number of specialized U.K. contractors and support equipment in Ukraine itself, which would then also become targets for Russia.

Deliveries would therefore make "little military sense," but they could unlock access to Swedish Gripen planes or F-18s owned by other allies, which are able to operate from makeshift bases requiring minimal logistics, Bronk said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.