Zelenskiy steps up jets lobbying – but are RAF Typhoons what Ukraine needs? | Defence policy

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s call this week for “powerful English planes” was something of a surprise. The demand for western fast jets may have been predictable, but not the apparent request for Typhoons, the workhorse fighter of an increasingly stretched RAF.

Prior to the president’s attention-grabbing European trip, Ukrainian lobbying for Nato-standard combat aircraft had been focused almost entirely on US-made F-16s, of which there are 3,000 in service worldwide. “It is the most widespread fighter jet in the world and many Nato members have it,” Yuriy Ihnat, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s air force, had said the weekend before.

No mention was made of the Typhoons, which cost about £75m each. Giving some to Ukraine would present all sorts of complications, although Rishi Sunak has instructed the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to see what can be done.

For his part, Wallace wasted little time in sounding sceptical, pointing out that the Typhoon is made by the four-country Eurofighter consortium, and so it would require not just Britain to agree to its use but also its partners Italy, Spain and Germany.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has already once ruled out sending fighter jets, and he has complained about western countries being in a “constant competition to outbid each other” in the supply of weapons to Ukraine.

Then there is the question of how many RAF Typhoons are available. The RAF has 137 on paper, and the 30 oldest, known as tranche 1, are due to be retired by 2025. Of these, 20 are operational and 10 are in storage.

Ukraine has asked for 200 fighters to help it defend its skies – more than the number of fighters available to the RAF (about 160) and closer in size to the French air force.

Experts say the Typhoon lacks combat requirements that Ukraine needs. The tranche 1 Typhoons are predominantly air-to-air fighters, and not much use for the close air support (ground bombing) missions that Ukraine would want to fly against entrenched Russian positions.

It is possible to upgrade the tranche 1 fighters to introduce ground attack capabilities, the British manufacturing partner BAE Systems told MPs last month, but that would not be a rapid process, and it would require the Ministry of Defence to give up some of the more modern Typhoons while the old ones were upgraded.

RAF sources point out that the Typhoons have never been busier: flying hours in the past year are up 20% on a range of operations. These include air policing of UK airspace and, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, similar activity on Nato’s eastern flank, plus longer-running missions – the Operation Shader bombing of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and patrol of the Falkland Islands.

Fighter jets are the “first military tool committed to new crises by successive governments for the best part of a decade”, according to Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst with the Rusi thinktank, and “also often one of the last to be withdrawn from operations” given ongoing activity in the Middle East and the south Atlantic.

In a paper this week, Bronk warns that as a result the RAF is “completely overstretched and worn out”, has shortages of engineers and spare parts, and already struggles to give pilots “enough high-quality flight training hours”, partly because would-be trainers – senior pilots – are busy flying operational missions.

A leak of RAF documents in the summer showed that recruits were often waiting months or years to get into the training cockpit, for a range of reasons, which would not bode well for a training programme for Ukrainian MiG-29 pilots hoping to learn how to retrain on Typhoons in three months (although the RAF thinks six to nine months is more realistic).

Ukrainian pilots have to fly combat missions close to the ground, sometimes at altitudes as low as 20 metres, because of the sophistication of Russian air defences. But Bronk adds that the Typhoon is optimised for “very high altitudes and speeds to give its missiles more range”, effective against countries with markedly weaker militaries or terrorist targets.

A more realistic possibility, therefore, may be to deploy Typhoons to other Nato countries, such as Poland, willing to pass on to Ukraine their F-16s. But if nothing else, Zelenskiy knows his high-profile lobbying will force western leaders such as Sunak to engage with a problem they might otherwise have sought to avoid.

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