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US-made jets, air defense on Ukrainian fighter pilots’ wishlist, but not Grey Eagle

Ukrainian fighter pilots want American fighter jets, such as the F-16 pictured here, to replace the losses of Soviet-made fighters over the course of the war.  (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire)

WASHINGTON: Ukrainian fighter pilots expect to speak to US government officials to make the case for the top two technologies needed to repel Russia’s air force: additional ground-based air defense systems and Western fighter jets.

What’s not on the list of priorities? The MQ-1C Grey Eagle drone, which has been the focus of recent arms sale negotiations but is, according to the airmen, too big of a target for Russian forces.

The discussions — which a small group of Ukrainian airmen hope to have with officials from the Pentagon and State Department, as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers — could ignite a new debate over whether the United States should supply Ukraine with more advanced American weaponry that will take time to learn to use and could pose more of a security risk, should the technologies fall into the wrong hands.

Currently, the Ukrainian air force’s biggest priority is securing an American commitment to supply ground-based air defense systems needed to ensure Ukraine can continue to maintain control of its airspace and defend against Russian attacks to civilian infrastructure.

“When you think air defense, you think fighters, right? But I’d say that the ground-based air defense was the key in this war, and it’s still the key [moving forward],” said a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter squadron commander who goes by the callsign “Moonfish.”

However, “we have a lot more pilots than jets at this point,” he said, adding that eventually the Ukrainian air force is going to need Western fighter jets to replenish the losses sustained by the service. The United States and its NATO allies have been hesitant to provide the jets due to concerns that Ukraine would not be able to absorb Western fighters within a timeframe that would allow the Ukrainian air force to operate them while the war with Russia is still ongoing.

Moonfish and “Juice,” a fighter pilot who leads a tactical aviation brigade, acknowledged that it will take time for the Ukrainian air force to learn how to operate US-made aircraft and mission systems, establish a working knowledge of how to tactically employ the fighters in combat, and sustain the jets. However, both expressed confidence that Ukraine’s more experienced pilots could learn how to operate an F-16 in less than a year.

“We are ready to do [the training] more intensively,” Juice said, adding that one way to speed up training would be to have different groups of pilots specialize in different mission sets.

“We need suppression of enemy air defense capability. We need air-to-ground capability and the [biggest] priority is air-to-air capability,” Juice said. “So we could set different groups for each capability and it would be shorter, like a small course for each group. And I believe that we could do it pretty fast.”

After Russian forces ended their assault on Kyiv and fighting coalesced in the eastern Donbas region, US security assistance to Ukraine — which now totals $5.6 billion since the Russia’s invasion in February — has been predominantly focused on ground warfare, with equipment such as howitzers, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and ground vehicles making up significant portions of recent arms packages.

In the early months of the war, the United States appeared open to potential agreements in which partner nations would transfer used MiGs to Ukraine in exchange for US fighters. However, after a fighter swap with Poland fell through, US officials have largely expressed disinterest with supplying fighters to Ukraine—even as the Ukrainian air force has made public calls for Western jets. 

The requirements of Ukraine’s air force have not always been heard in Washington, and the service needs aircraft and air defense equipment replenished so that it can continue defending critical infrastructure and urban areas throughout the country, Moonfish and Juice said.

“This war is not just happening on the front line,” Juice said. “Even now, like the second phase of this war, cruise missiles are still attacking our peaceful cities around the country, and even in the western side [of Ukraine].”

RELATED: No, the US Air Force isn’t going to give Ukraine its A-10 Warthogs

Although Ukrainian air force sorties have decreased since the beginning of the war, pilots continue to fly anywhere from 20 to 30 sorties each day, Moonfish said. About 70% of those missions involve supporting troops on the ground, while most other units stand on “quick reaction alert,” prepared to launch fighters in the event that Russian aircraft intrudes into Ukrainian airspace.

“We’re outnumbered by a lot, and [the Russian military is] attacking not only with aircraft but with missiles —  ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, air to ground missiles,” Moonfish said. “They’re targeting fuel storages, grain storages, railroads, bridges.”

Pilots On MQ-1C Grey Eagles: ‘It’s Not Afghanistan Here’

When Moonfish and Juice speak to lawmakers and US government officials about Ukrainian capability gaps, one piece of equipment that won’t be on their wish list is the MQ-1C Grey Eagle, a General Atomics-made, long-range drone that can strike targets and provide additional battlefield surveillance.

Both Moonfish and Juice stressed that their opinions on the Grey Eagle are not representative of the Ukraine’s military leadership, who hope to acquire four MQ-1Cs. However, the pilots believe the capability would be quickly shot down in contested battlefield in the Donbas.

“It could be useful, of course, for some local operations to destroy some priority targets on the frontline. But it’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones, in our case, because of [the] enemy’s air defense,” Juice said. “It’s not Afghanistan here.”

The much cheaper and shorter-range Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones were operated to great effect in the early days of the war to hit long columns of stalled Russian tanks, Moonfish added. But although they are still being flown in support of reconnaissance and special operations missions, they are “almost useless” in the current fight and used for attack only in “rare conditions.”

RELATED: Ukraine’s Turkish-made drones face off against advanced Russian military

“My opinion is knowing the Russian air defense right now, and knowing that range of the missiles that Gray Eagle, I’ll give you a 90% chance that it will be shot down,” he said. “Bayraktar is much cheaper, so it’s okay to lose Bayraktars. But Grey Eagle is pretty expensive.”

The Ukrainian pilots’ worry about losing the Grey Eagle are echoed by certain US officials who have raised concerns about what would happen if the technology falls into Russian hands. On Friday, Reuters reported that the deal stalled after a technical objection was raised during a Defense Technology Security Administration review.

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