For the past month, the entire world has been watching the Ukrainian sky. And for good reason: Since World War II, air superiority has been the deciding factor in international conflicts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is well aware that control of the sky is the key to victory in Ukraine. Air superiority would enable Russia to protect its ground forces and easily attack Ukraine’s troops from the air. This is why Ukraine’s air force was Russia’s initial target. On Feb. 24, the first day of the war, Russia struck airports and air defense bases, hitting 25 cities across the country.
In the face of this all-out assault, the Ukrainian air force’s primary mission is to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority.
In the face of this all-out assault, the Ukrainian air force’s primary mission is to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority. The difficulty of this task cannot be exaggerated: Our enemy possesses vastly superior capabilities, both in the sheer number of aircraft and surface-to-air defense systems, and in the level of their technologies.
Effective air defense requires a full arsenal of tools on the ground and in the sky, and Ukraine started the war with a tremendous disadvantage on both fronts. According to our internal data, Russia has six times as many planes and 10 times the combat power in the air as Ukraine. What’s more, the Russian jets are equipped with advanced “fire-and-forget” missiles. These missiles have their own radar systems, which do not require further guidance after they are launched. Ukrainian jets, in contrast, rely on semi-active missiles, which require continued guidance from the plane’s radar.
In practice, this means that Russian pilots can launch a missile and immediately retreat to safety; our pilots must fly alongside the missile to guide it to its target, exposing themselves to huge risk.
In early March, our allies floated the idea of transferring Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine to answer our call for fighter jets. These Soviet-made jets have received some upgrades to meet NATO standards. However, they have the same outdated radar and missile technologies as our current fleet. Pilots would continue to be sitting ducks in these planes — easy targets for the enemy.
Strong ground-based air defense systems can play a major role in preventing airstrikes and missile strikes. On the ground, as in the air, the right arsenal of tools is key. Ukraine relies on the long-range S-300 missile systems, which feature outdated, Soviet-era technology. According to our intelligence, Russia uses the much more powerful S-400 system — and it has many more of them.
This is why, from the first days of the war, we have asked our allies for assistance in the sky. To effectively protect our territory, Ukraine requires at least one squadron of modern fighter jets, such as American-made F-16s or F-15s. According to our estimates, our pilots can learn to fly such jets at an accelerated pace of two to three weeks. This timeline is based on two reasons.
First, today’s extreme circumstances lead to unmatched levels of motivation. We have already seen our pilots perform the impossible as they defend their homes and their land against the Russian aggressor. Second, many of our pilots have gone through the new hands-on training methods I put into place during my time as the commander of the air force — methods designed to put practice ahead of theory and quickly get pilots into the cockpit.
In addition to fighter jets, we need long-range missile defense systems — at a minimum, the same S-400s used by the enemy, and ideally, more advanced options such as Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems or American Patriots.
Despite our pleas, our allies in the West have provided none of the requested equipment.
Unfortunately, despite our pleas, our allies in the West have provided none of the requested equipment. Leading up to Russia’s invasion, the West cited several concerns about providing Ukraine with more advanced air defense systems. At the top of the list was a fear of provoking Putin — Western politicians hoped their restraint would bring about a reasonable, negotiated end to the war.
But the past few weeks have made the naivete of such positions clear. Putin is committed to continuing this war. He has given up on negotiations; his soldiers commit ever-graver atrocities each day; his media openly calls for Ukraine’s total destruction.
Now, the world is beginning to see what we’ve known since Feb. 24. The only hope of stopping this war is Ukrainian resistance. Like most dictators, Putin takes advantage of weakness and responds only to strength. And military strength requires the right weapons.
So far, the U.S. has sent us Stingers, which have a very limited range and ability and, as such, cannot shoot down the majority of Russian threats in the air. We have also been successfully using drones to attack Russian military positions; unfortunately, these can only act as a complement to fighter jets and surface-based missile systems, not a replacement for them.
How, then, has the Ukrainian air force held on thus far without the necessary tools to mount a successful air defense? Two intangible factors come to mind.
First, Ukrainian pilots are renowned for their adaptability. Innovative training methods I implemented several years ago prepare our pilots to think strategically, remain flexible under pressure, and easily master new technologies. For years, we have held joint exercises with the California National Guard; our colleagues in the U.S. Air Force can vouch for our pilots’ skills firsthand.
Our second advantage over the Russians is our motivation. Like our brothers in Ukraine’s ground forces, we are united in our resolve to defend our nation from the Russian invaders. Our patriotism and dedication contrast with the Russians, who are killing civilians in a misguided campaign to steal territory.
But let me be very clear. Skill and motivation alone cannot defeat an enemy with an exponentially larger and more advanced air force. Western leaders stand by and applaud our pilots’ mettle while continuing to deny them the tools they need. It feels like they are OK sacrificing our air force, and Ukraine with it.
In Russian social media of news channels we are monitoring, the Russians boast that there is already a no-fly zone over Ukraine — enforced by Russia. They claim that Ukrainian pilots are no longer able to leave the ground and that Ukrainian ground-based defense systems have been destroyed.
This isn’t true — yet. But this is the future our partners in the West are choosing when they withhold needed aid. This is the outcome we’re heading toward when our allies pretend that we can defend our sky with Stingers instead of providing fighter jets and long-range ground-based defense systems.
I do not insist on other nations’ direct military involvement in this war. Our talented and courageous air force is ready to fight our enemy. But we must immediately receive the tools required for them to do their job.