Poland’s Last Few MiG-29s Could Go To War In Ukraine

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Poland has signaled it might give Ukraine the rest of its Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, potentially bringing the Ukrainian air force MiG fleet back up to full strength as the air force awaits the arrival of ex-European Lockheed Martin F-16s and Dassault Mirage 2000s.

But fighters aren’t the Ukrainian air force’s most urgent requirement. What the air force needs most is air defenses to protect the fighters it already has while they’re on the ground. Adding jets without also adding air defenses could result in the jets getting knocked out before they can fly a single sortie.

The twin-engine, supersonic MiGs came up as Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk signed a security agreement in Warsaw on Monday.

Tusk said he was inclined to give away the MiGs—numbering around 15—but only if Poland’s NATO allies deploy fighters to help patrol Polish air space until the Polish air force can acquire new jets to replace the MiGs. “We cannot simply hand over the MiGs immediately because they are currently performing air policing duties,” Tusk said.

That shouldn’t be a problem. NATO routinely shuffles around fighter squadrons from its bigger members—the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, among others—to patrol the sky over its smaller members. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania don’t even have fighter jets, and have always been patrolled by planes from allied countries.

Expect the Poles to eventually send the MiGs. The need is clear, as the Ukrainians have been losing fighters at an unsustainable rate. In a startling three days last week, Russian drones flew over Ukrainian airfields, spotting targets for Iskander ballistic missiles. The Ukrainian air force wrote off at least three precious fighter jets in those raids—including one MiG-29.

Exactly how many MiGs the Ukrainians have left is unclear. Kyiv’s air force went to war in February 2022 with potentially 50 or so ex-Soviet MiG-29s, representing nearly half of its active fighter fleet.

But the war has been hard on the MiG brigades. In 28 months of hard fighting, the Ukrainian air force has lost at least 28 MiG-29s that analysts have verified. Between them, Poland and Slovakia have donated 27 MiGs as replacements, but some of those airframes were unflyable—and useful only as sources of spare parts.

A dozen or more additional Polish MiG-29s would restore, if not expand, the Ukrainian air force’s MiG fleet—and buy time for the air force as new F-16s and Mirage 2000s trickle in over the coming year or so. The first few F-16s are due to arrive in Ukraine any day now.

But there’s some risk any fresh ex-Polish MiGs would never even get off the ground. Taking advantage of gaps in Ukrainian air defenses, the Russians have been flying more drones over Ukrainian airfields—and striking the airfields with Iskander missiles.

And that’s why Ukraine needs extra air defenses more than its needs extra fighters. Fortunately for Ukraine, its allies appreciate the scale of the need. Air defenses for Ukraine are near the top of the agenda as NATO leaders gather in Washington, D.C. this week.

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