yesour correspondent Frequent air travel for work. But that rarely involved skimming at low altitude the summer houses that dot the Swedish Baltic coastline, breaking the sound barrier and controlling the Gripen fighter for a few rolls and loops. In the cockpit, next to the pilot and wisely out of reach of your journalists, is a small switch that allows the Swedish plane to be pushed to its limits. It was set to “peaceful”. Switch it to War with the flick of a finger. It feels particularly resonant.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Ukrainian air force has lost 60 fighter jets, or 40 percent of its pre-war fleet, according to a recently leaked U.S. document. It only has 80 or so left. Russia has nearly 500 aircraft allocated to the war effort. And they largely outperform Ukrainian ones, with better radar and longer range ammunition. The good news is that Russia has been unable to take advantage of this advantage to dominate the skies. Having failed to knock out Ukraine’s air defenses, its aircraft have been forced to fire missiles or drop bombs from considerable distances, often with ineffective results. The bad news is that the air balance looks erratic.
Since October, the regular drumbeat of Russian drone and missile attacks has forced Ukraine to spend a lot of surface-to-air missiles (SamSecond). The situation has stabilized in recent weeks with new supplies coming in, a Western official said.but if SamIf money is short, Ukraine will have to choose between protecting cities, critical infrastructure, bases or frontline troops. “Our first priority is to prevent Russian aircraft from entering our airspace,” said Ukrainian air force spokesman Colonel Yurii Ihnat. “We don’t want a situation like the one over Mariupol, where they… razed the whole city to the ground.”
In theory, fighter jets could replace ground-based air defenses by shooting down enemy aircraft, drones and cruise missiles. But Col. Ihnat said Ukraine’s current fleet rarely detects these early enough because of “ancient radar technology”. Poland and Slovakia have delivered about eight MiG-29 jets in recent weeks, but the numbers are also limited. Many jets cannot fly and are only used as spares. Ukraine needs a new fleet.
The Gripen, made by the Swedish company Saab, is one of the candidates. In many ways, it is a perfect fit for Ukraine’s needs. It was specifically designed to defend Swedish airspace from Russian jets, rather than perform more complex missions such as strike missions deep behind enemy lines. It can also land on short runways or even roads in case traditional air bases are attacked by missiles. A technician and five recruits can refuel and rearm the plane in ten minutes, Saab said.
The main problem with the Gripen is that there are so few of them around. Sweden has sold or leased about 66 to other countries. It’s less than 100 by itself.And because of Sweden’s bid to host NATO The country is reluctant to deplete its defenses as Turkey and Hungary block accession. Tobias Billstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, said nothing was impossible, but “we don’t have that many Gripen fighter jets.” About 14 squadrons, 10 years to wait.
He’s not shy about what he’d rather have: “Ukraine needs the F-16.” Since production began in the 1970s, more than 4,600 F-16s have been built. Some are still being built in South Carolina, us The Air Force plans to fly its newest model into the 2040s. Retired RAF Marshal Edward Stringer pointed to the ubiquitous, rugged pickup truck as “the Toyota Hilux of the air combat world”. In 2020, the F-16 accounts for approximately 30% of the European fleet NATO Members, with a higher share than any other plane.
Ukraine is targeting the second-hand market: Norway retired all of its F-16s last year in favor of the stealthy F-35, and Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands all plan to do the same. In February, Ukraine sent a formal request to the Netherlands. Next door Poland and Romania, as well as Greece and Turkey, will all provide spare parts and repair facilities, Mr Stringer said. On April 21, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry released a tongue-in-cheek video praising the jet’s quality (“30-degree recliner seats, baby”).
It also has some disadvantages. One problem is cost. Gripen is much less expensive to fly and maintain. Another concern is the state of Ukrainian airports, said Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. Soviet runways were built like floor tiles: concrete block panels with sealant between them. This allows them to withstand the expansion and contraction of extreme heat and cold. It also means moss, stones and other debris can build up in between. The Gripen, with its smaller intakes and higher up in the fuselage, is better able to handle that than the F-16, Mr. Blank said.
Ukraine could resurface some airfields, but that would only invite Russian missiles. While the F-16 can land on roads in a pinch, its lighter landing gear isn’t well suited to the stress of a short runway — something this reporter was left with when his Gripen was slammed for a short landing. I have a deep understanding. Colonel Inat was outraged by this objection. “We felt like it was ripping us off,” he retorted. “Any plane can land in Ukraine.” Privately, some experienced Ukrainian military pilots are more skeptical of the government’s pursuit of the F-16.
Either way, just as important as an aircraft is its armament. Even a small fleet of eight to 12 Gripen fighter jets, armed with the Meteor, the world’s most advanced air-to-air missile, could keep Russia’s risk-averse air force at bay, Mr Blank said. Since the Meteor was jointly developed by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, a consensus on export would be needed, which would also provide transnational political cover for any decision by Sweden to send the jet. The obstacle is that the Europeans probably don’t want to risk a cutting-edge meteor falling into Russian hands. The US may be similarly hesitant to send the latest variant of its equivalent, Purpose-120, which Mr. Bronk says is needed to make the F-16’s range comparable to the best Russian missiles.
Ukraine also needs other support capabilities. Mr. Stringer pointed out the importance of electronic warfare (electronic warfare) to blind Russian warplanes; instead of the dedicated electronic warfare aircraft used by the U.S. and its allies, Ukraine could field simpler ground systems, he suggested. Anders Persson, who served as deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force until last August, pointed to the importance of the data link linking fighter jets to ground-based air defense radars. He warned that a Gripen or F-16 without this link could only serve as an enhanced MiG fighter.
For now, many western officials insist the debate over the fighter jets is a distraction from resupplying Ukraine SamSecond. It seems very smug. The Russian air force is easy to laugh at: On April 20, it even accidentally bombed the Russian city of Belgorod.But air power could still play a role in Ukraine’s impending offensive, especially if the Russian Air Force takes greater risks
It doesn’t have to be like this. David Deptula, director of the Mitchell Aerospace Institute in Arlington, Virginia, lamented: “If we had started this work last year, modern combat aircraft would have fallen into the hands of the Ukrainians. ” us air force. If the West acts now, the Ukrainians could have as many as 30 F-16s by the end of the year, he said. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” he added. “Without the will, there is no way.” ■