By Dr Maria E. Burczynska
In the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the support provided by other states, it seems like, for the past month, discussions (at least those air power-related) revolved around two topics: no-fly zones and the potential transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force. While the potential consequences of the former have been analysed and commented on by several professionals, security analysts and researchers, the reasoning behind the decisions regarding Polish MiG-29s are less discussed. The coverage has been mainly limited to reporting the progress of the potential deal (or, more recently, calling it off) between Poland, the US and Ukraine. What would it mean then for Poland (and NATO) if those fighter jets were transferred to Ukraine, and why such a move is more complicated than it seems?
The MiG-29 saga can be traced back to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announcing on 27 February a €450m scheme to fund weapons for Ukraine, which would include providing fighter jets. These were supposed to be post-Soviet aircraft with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar. The following day Ukrainian authorities announced in a Tweet that the Ukrainian Air Force was to receive a total of 70 fighter planes from Poland (28 MiG-29), Slovakia (12 MiG-29) and Bulgaria (16 MiG-29 and 14 Su-25). At the same time, Borrell backtracked on his announcement and acknowledged that the potential transfer of those aircraft would have to be agreed upon bilaterally by individual states rather than sponsored by the EU. On Tuesday, these news reports were quickly denied by Slovakia and Bulgaria. Also, Polish President, Andrzej Duda, speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Łask Air Base in Poland, clearly stated that Poland would not send their jets to Ukraine as that would suggest a military interference and NATO is not part of that conflict. Following a plea by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to supply his country with more firepower, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Sunday, 6 March, that Poland has been given ‘the green light’ to provide the Ukrainian Air Force with MiG-29s and indicated the possibility that in turn the Polish Air Force could be supplied with new F-16s. On Tuesday, 8 March, the following statement was made by the Polish Minister of foreign affairs, Zbigniew Rau:
The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Government, are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.
At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.
The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.
The US rejected the proposal as ‘not tenable’ because it presents serious logistical challenges and ‘raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.’ General Tod D. Wolters, Commander for the US European Command, later repeated that stance and added that such a move, while not increasing the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force, could be seen as escalatory in the conflict with Russia. Also, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposed the proposal of transferring Polish MiGs via Ramstein, saying ‘we want to de-escalate the conflict, we want to see an end to this conflict.’ The argument of possible escalation the transfer could bring is dominant in the discussions around the topic. It also explains Poland’s motivation not to take the final decision unilaterally. As explained by President Duda in a joint press conference with the US Vice President Kamala Harris, as a NATO member, Poland cannot decide on an issue that could impact the security of the whole Alliance. Therefore they ‘wanted NATO as a whole to make a common decision so that Poland remains a credible member of NATO.’ A potential escalation of the conflict quite rightly dominates the discussion on the MiGs transfer, but what are the other ‘logistical challenges’ as mentioned by the US authorities that such a move would entail?
The MiG-29s currently possessed by the Polish Air Force is a remnant of its past. As a former Soviet bloc country, Poland had in its inventory mostly aircraft built either in the Soviet Union or under their licence, so, for example, the fighter fleet consisted of MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-29, and Su-22, where only the latter two types had any modern combat capability. As a result of post-1990 modernisation conducted in the Polish Armed Forces, the former two types (MiG-21 and MiG-23) were withdrawn from service by 2004. As per MiG-29s, many of those purchased at the time by Poland was not a brand-new platform. In fact, ten jets were acquired from the Czech Republic in 1995, and an additional 22 were bought from Germany in 2003. The latter ones were in a much worse condition than the others and required a major overhaul. As a result, only fourteen out of those 22 were operational in the Polish Air Force. In 2021, Poland had 28 MiG fighters. One could ask how much difference would those aging platforms make if transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force? Ukrainian air fleet consists of post-Soviet platforms including, for example, MiG-29, Sukhoi-27, or Sukhoi-25. Therefore, transferring aircraft with which pilots are familiar makes perfect sense. Especially while there are still pilots who can fly them, as with every aircraft lost in a fight, an experienced pilot is lost. Also, since the start of the war, neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russian has secured air superiority, although both have suffered losses. As reported on the Oryx list of equipment losses, to date, the Ukrainian Air Force lost 12 fixed-wing aircraft while, on the Russian side, 16 fixed-wing platforms were destroyed and one damaged. Certainly, in such a situation, additional MiGs are needed to fill the emerging gap and ensure that Russia is still denied air superiority. However, would they be a game-changer as compared with the highly effective Ukrainian air defence? It has already been suggested to provide Ukraine with ground-based air defence systems as an alternative solution to transferring fighter jets – simpler logistically and less risky of conflict escalation.
On a similar note, however, one could also ask what it would mean for Poland’s defence if these aircraft were to be transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Indeed, such a move would leave the Polish Air Force with a capability gap as MiGs are the only fighter jets in their fleet. The multi-role F-16s Poland also possesses could potentially take over that role. However, that would mean that the F-16s cannot perform other roles they are capable of, like engaging in air-to-ground missions. Therefore, transferring MiGs would weaken Poland’s (and NATO’s defence), leaving a capability gap that would need to be filled.
A solution to that, as it seems, could be the potential deal between Poland and the US, resulting in acquiring ‘aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities’ as suggested in the Ministerial statement. There are, however, certain logistical difficulties to such a move. Firstly, there is a backlog in the production of F-16s; therefore, immediate delivery of new aircraft to fill the gap is not an option. Secondly, to acquire new jets and fill the gap promptly, Poland would have to jump the queue as it would be not the only country waiting for those platforms, and, at the moment, priority has been given to Taiwan. Also, acquiring used aircraft would present similar difficulties as they will have to be replaced with new platforms to start with and then most likely undergo an overhaul before being sold. Therefore, it is not a quick nor easy solution.
Furthermore, purchasing aircraft to replace MiGs presents potential training and personnel challenges. Despite what type is being acquired, personnel (both pilots and ground crew) must be trained, and air bases need to be prepared. Moreover, as one could expect, training a fourth-generation fighter pilot is a lengthy and multi-level process. For example, the first deployment of Polish F-16s happened in 2016 – ten years after they were bought by the Polish Air Force when four of the fighters joined Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. Under special circumstances, like a developing conflict in a neighbouring country, it could be suspected that training could be sped up. However, this certainly cannot happen overnight and would still require time and resources. Also, a valid question remains about the personnel currently working with MiG-29s. They would need to be re-trained for a new platform type (whatever that would be). However, it is also quite possible that they may not qualify for that because of age. Therefore, one could ask whether it is a good moment to make them redundant and whether such a move would not further weaken Poland’s defence capability.
There are also technical issues that need to be addressed before the fighter jets are transferred. When Poland joined NATO in 1999, it meant a major military transformation, part of which was focused on increasing compatibility with the Alliance’s systems. That meant that the existing aircraft had to be fitted. For example, with equipment allowing for secure communication with the platforms belonging to other NATO members or equipment allowing for its correct identification as friend or foe. As Ukraine is not part of NATO, those systems would need to be removed. Furthermore, one should remember that as NATO aircraft, the avionics in Polish MiGs were re-scaled from metric to the imperial system. Moreover, that not only involved upgrading or re-scaling the equipment and creating a whole new mindset, so the personnel did not need to make calculations to operate in the air constantly. Therefore, before the fighters were to be transferred, their avionics would need to be re-scaled back to the metric system, or otherwise, it would cause a significant challenge for Ukrainian pilots if they had to make the calculations manually under war conditions.
Another issue is the logistics of the potential transfer itself. Since flying those MiGs from a NATO airbase, whether in Germany or Poland, has been ruled out, it is unclear how they would be delivered. One scenario mentioned using a non-aligned country as a middleman – a base where the re-painted Ramstein fighters could fly to and then continue their journey to Ukraine. Kosovo was suggested as one of the possible options that would rule out NATO or the EU’s direct participation in the transfer. Nevertheless, with Russia warning that the use of other countries’ airfields for basing Ukrainian military aviation with the subsequent use of force against Russia’s army can be regarded as the involvement of these states in an armed conflict,’ it seems that such a move would likely lead to an escalation of the ongoing war.
The potential transfer of Polish MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force proves to be not as straightforward as the political rhetoric may paint it. Quite the opposite – it is a lengthy, costly, and complex process. Moreover, its potential consequences range from the escalation of the conflict through to the weakening Poland’s defence capability (as well as NATO’s eastern flank in a time of war taking place on its border) to the many logistical challenges. Therefore, the decision should not be taken unilaterally by one country but rather carefully considered by the whole Alliance, as the consequences it may bring will also need to be faced collectively by all its members.
Dr Maria E. Burczynska is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton where she is involved in designing and delivering an online MA course on Air Power, Space Power and Cyber Warfare. She obtained her PhD from the University of Nottingham where she worked on a project focused on European air power and its involvement in different forms of multinational cooperation. Her thesis, titled ‘The potential and limits of air power in contemporary multinational operations: the case of the UK, Polish and Swedish air forces,’ is making an important contribution to the field of air power studies, which remains to date largely dominated by the US case. The significance of her research was recognised by the Royal Air Force Museum awarding her the Museum’s RAF Centenary PhD Bursary in Air Power Studies in April 2019. Maria’s research interests are in the broad area of military and security studies in both, the national and international dimension. She is particularly interested in contemporary European air forces and their participation in multinational operations and initiatives as well as the influence of national culture on the military culture of individual air forces. She can be found on Twitter at: @BurczynskaMaria.
Header image: A US Air Force General Dynamics F-16C from the 183rd Fighter Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, flies in formation with a Polish Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29A from the 1st Tactical Squadron over Krzesiny air base, Poland, on 15 June 2005. Both aircraft participated in exercise ‘Sentry White Falcon 05.’ (Source: Wikimedia)
 ‘Chapter 4: Europe,’ The Military Balance, 122.1 (2022), p. 136.