BEST FIGHTER FOR... UKRAINE?
While we wait for Canada to finally announce it replacement for the CF-18, we find the world a much different place than it was when this whole saga began.
While war is certainly nothing new, the unprovoked incursion by Russia into Ukraine seems different. Marrying some of the worst elements of both the Cold War and World War II, the Russian invasion has been brutal and unforgiving. Civilian casualties have been high, with Russian forces being rather indiscriminate in their targets.
After years of seeing wars fought with precision guided munitions used in overwhelming force, we may have forgotten just how "messy" war can be.
Given Vladimir Putin's shaky justification for the "military exercise" and the Ukrainian early victory in the "propaganda war"; it did not take long for the rest of the world to pick sides in this conflict. Most of the world have declared Ukraine as the "good guy" with only Russia's most stalwart allies justifying its actions.
It seems unlikely that Russia predicted the strong Ukrainian resistance. Logistical issues have plagued the Russian invaders, reducing their numerical advantage. Russian air superiority has been thus far non-existent, despite both a numerical and technological advantage. On paper, this invasion should have been a proverbial cake walk for the Russians, yet it has been anything but.
Oddly enough, the skies above Ukraine are filled with familiar sights. The Ukrainian Air Force still utilizes the same fighters it procured during the Cold War... When it is was part of the Soviet Union. That means it is using MiG-29s, Su-24s, Su-25s, and Su-27s. Those aircraft that make up the bulk of the invading Russian aircraft, albeit in modernized versions like the Su-35.
As a thought exercise one has to wonder: If Ukraine had the choice, what fighter would it prefer?
One could easily make a case for the F-35. It is, after all, the most advanced fighter available right now. Indeed, its stealth design was a direct response to Russia's surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. Those same systems have seen prominent use in Ukraine.
Russia's infamous 40-Mile long convoy that is slowly making its way towards Kyiv would appear to be a prime target for an aerial attack. The proverbial "sitting duck". Unfortunately for the Ukrainian defenders, any aerial assault would have to get past Russian mobile missile batteries. Of course, this sort of thing is totally in the JSF's wheelhouse. SEAD (suppression of enemy air defence) is certainly included in the F-35's "Jack-of-all-trades" list.
Of course, stealth is not always a sure thing. Overconfidence can lead to disaster, as demonstrated by the Serbian shoot-down of an F-117 Nighthawk in 1999. Yes, the F-117 was a "mature" platform at the time, but it was shot down by an even older and more obsolete SAM system. How the F-35 would fare against more modern systems remains to be seen; but JSF drivers would do well to be practice all due diligence.
As for its effectiveness against Russia's fighter fleet; the JSF should prove to be a worthy asset. While it may not match the supermaneuverability of the Su-35, its superior BVR capability makes that a moot point. Theoretically, an F-35 should detect its adversary long before it itself is seen. Again, the F-35 pilot would do well to operate to the aircraft's strengths and avoid any WVR entanglements.
Ukrainian F-35s are unlikely to happen, however. The Pentagon does not sell the JSF to just anyone. Security concerns can stop an F-35 sale in its tracks. Turkey, once a "Level 2" partner (same as Canada) in the JSF program, was unceremoniously booted from the program due to its insistence on using it alongside Russian-sourced S-400 SAMs. Ukraine's unfortunate history of instability and corruption make it an unlikely JSF customer. It has recently gotten away from some of this, but it still has a way to go.
Ukrainian defence tactics thus far appear to somewhat familiar: A smaller, independent nation being invaded by nearby "superpower" that holds a massive numerical advantage. Predictably, the larger nation begins its invasion by targeting military bases and airstrips. On paper, this should greatly weaken and demoralize the defenders... Unless they were prepared for this sort of thing...
Instead of massive ground battles Ukrainian troops have practiced a form of guerrilla warfare, greatly diminishing Russian numerical advantage. Similar tactics used in Afghanistan resulted in 10-year stalemate followed by Soviet withdrawal. The difference now is that Ukrainians are far better equipped. Instead of crude RPGs captured from its invaders, Ukrainians are utilizing sophisticated NLAW and Javelin anti-tank weapons.
The Mujahadin also did not have access to fighter jets.
While Ukrainian airfields were targeted in the first days of the conflict, its MiG-29s and Su-27s were still capable of operating thanks to their ability to operate from damaged or improvised runways. The "Ghost of Kyiv" will not be grounded by anything as mundane as a busted airfield.
Of course, Ukrainian tactics thus far seem almost identical to Swedish military doctrine of "Free War" and "Total Defense". This includes the use of conscription forces, civil defense, and the ability to disperse national defense. This doctrine is the reason why Swedish fighters can operate from improvised road bases.
Like the F-35, the Gripen should be more than capable of engaging Russia's fleet. Unfortunately, its lack of stealth make Russian SAMs a bit more threatening. While the Gripen does have a serviceable EW suite and Saab does have a new jamming pod in the works, they remain untested.
Oddly enough, the best fighter for Ukraine might already be on its way.
No. Not the "on-again, off-again" deal to provide Ukraine with used Polish MiG-29s.
The deal seems sensible at first: Poland "donates" MiG-29s to help bolster Ukraine. Since these aircraft are already in use, there are no worries about training or logistical issues. In return, Poland's air force gets "back filled" with American F-16s.
Unfortunately, this deal has several issues. First of all, it raises the real possibility of escalating the war beyond its current borders. Second, those Polish MiG-29s are of dubious quality, already being handed down once by Germany. These Soviet-era fighters may look similar to the fighters already in use, but they are not near as capable of Russia's updated MiG-29M or the Ukrainian MiG-29MU. Even ignoring all of this, Ukraine may not have enough pilots to fly these aircraft.
The biggest winner in this deal would be Poland. Not only does it receive lots of good publicity, but it replaces its entire fleet of obsolete fighters with newer and more capable F-16s.
There is no wonder why the US has described the deal as "untenable". While the USAF does have plenty of F-16s, they are not exactly just "laying around". Most USAF F-16s are either in active service (ie: unavailable) or stored away in the AMARC "boneyard" (ie: unusable without major refit). That leaves new build F-16s as the only likely option, which is financially out of the question.
Keep in mind that the Biden Administration's refusal to back the deal does not dismiss Poland's "donation" completely, it just removes American support.
The best fighter for Ukraine right now is something much smaller.
The US is providing Ukraine with 100 Switchblade "loitering munitions". Also known as "kamikaze drones", these small aircraft combine the features of a small portable UAV with a guided missile. Instead of the usual UCAV that carries missiles, this UCAV is the missile. Weighing in at a tiny 2.5kg, the Switchblade could represent the future of guerrilla warfare.
Cheaper and more portable than a Javelin, the Switchblade has a range of about 10km and a loiter time of about 10 minutes. While this makes it unsuitable for true reconnaissance, it does have the flexibility to change targets mid-flight or be called off altogether.
The Switchblade will also be available in a much larger "600" variant with a 40km range and 40 minute loiter time. This larger version, with a mass of 25kg, can take out armored vehicles like tanks while still being longer ranged and cheaper than the Javelin.
Now it gets weird...
Imagine a drone... That is also a missile... Being carried by another drone.
The Switchblade 600 is small enough to fit inside the weapon bay the XQ-58 Valkyrie UCAV. Developed under the "Loyal Wingman" project: the Valkyrie is a stealthy drone that also happens to be quite affordable. At a mere $2 million per unit, the Valkyrie itself if cheap enough to be considered "expendable". Indeed, the Valkyrie is cheaper than some cruise missiles.
While the F-35 may be a good platform to send against Russian SAMs, an aircraft like the Switchblade equipped XQ-58 would seem like a GREAT option. Why risk an expensive, manned fighter jet when you can send in a cheap, unmanned fighter instead... Or even a SWARM of them.
Indeed, Ukraine seems to be more than happy to embrace drone warfare. Joining the "Ghost of Kyiv" and "Saint Javelin" in Ukrainian folklore is the Turkish-made Baykar Bayraktar UCAV. Roughly equivalent to the MQ-9 Reaper, the Bayraktar has proven itself quite effective.
Effective enough for it to inspire its own catchy Ukrainian folksong and YouTube video praising its exploits.
Why are these smaller, slower, cheaper drones so effective?
As sophisticated as they are, Russian SAM systems like the S-400 are geared towards threats like bombers and multi-role fighters. While UCAVs like the Bayraktar are certainly not "stealth": they fly much lower, limiting radar's effectiveness. The use of a small piston engine gives it a much smaller infrared signature as well.
Sooner or later, more effective countermeasure will be available to counter drone warfare. That is inevitable. It is also inevitable that UCAVs will develop counter-countermeasures. That is just the nature of these sort of things.
The current Russo-Ukrainian War does illustrate the usefulness and importance of UCAVs. One could argue that their use in the conflict has been a major factor in Russia's stalled advance.
While American and allied forces used UCAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a much different form of warfare. Those UCAVs were used in uncontested airspace against a much smaller in technologically inferior foe. In Ukraine, UCAVs are proving successful against a vastly superior enemy. While the term "force multiplier" gets thrown around quite often lately, it certainly applies her.
Ukraine has shown us that drone warfare is the future of warfare.