Report to Congress on Transferring Fighter Aircraft to Ukraine

March 21, 2023 10:57 AM

The following is the March 17, 2023 Congressional Research Service report, Transferring Fighter Aircraft to Ukraine: Issues and Options for Congress.

From the report

Since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, some defense analysts, U.S. defense officials, and Members of Congress have debated whether or not to enable the transfer of U.S. or NATO military aircraft, including fighter jets and unmanned aircraft, to Ukraine. In general, the debate has centered around two broad questions: (1) Is providing advanced military fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force necessary to helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression, and (2) if so, how much and what kinds of assistance, ranging from aircraft to maintenance to training, should the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provide?

On one side of the debate, some analysts note that combat aircraft have not yet played a decisive role in the conflict and are unlikely to do so based on current Ukrainian and Russian capabilities. Both sides have employed advanced air defense systems that have limited the combat effects of Russian and Ukrainian aircraft. As a result, the conflict in Ukraine has evolved into a ground-centric, air denial conflict featuring precision strike capabilities, such as the U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). On the other side of the debate, proponents of transferring U.S. or NATO fighter jets to Ukraine claim that it may allow the Ukrainian military to address certain perceived gaps in operational capabilities, such as air superiority; suppression of enemy air defenses; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and counter-land (air-to-ground) capabilities.

Congress may evaluate a proposed transfer of U.S. or NATO fighter aircraft to Ukraine applying an “air denial” (deny Russia ability to use airpower) versus “air superiority” (help Ukraine overcome Russian air defenses and air power) comparison to an analysis of selected military mission areas. From this perspective, the military operating environment of the conflict has resulted in both sides adopting an air denial strategy rather than seeking air superiority. A central tactical purpose of using advanced fighter aircraft, especially in U.S. military doctrine, has been to achieve air superiority. Congress may consider whether it is best for U.S. security assistance seek to continue to provide air denial capability to Ukraine, or whether it would further U.S. interests to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces seeking air superiority. The outcome of such decisions may affect other mission areas, such as suppression of enemy air defenses; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and counter-land (air-to-ground) capabilities.

In evaluating whether it is in the U.S. interest to transfer U.S. or NATO military aircraft to Ukraine, Congress may consider several issues:

  • What are the hurdles and potential implications to Ukraine’s adaptation to fighting with advanced military aircraft? How long would it take Ukraine to fully adapt its security institutions to effectively fight with advanced military aircraft?
  • How quickly can Ukrainian personnel be trained on new systems?
  • Would Ukraine use a maintenance model where it trains its own personnel to do maintenance on advanced fighter aircraft, or a model where it uses international contract maintenance personnel? If the latter, for how long?
  • What types of munitions would the United States likely provide? Would transferring munitions for Ukrainian fighter aircraft impact the U.S. military’s ability to conduct air superiority operations elsewhere in the world?
  • Should the United States pay to transfer U.S.-manufactured fighter jets to Ukraine? Congress may consider options for how to finance such aircraft and who should fund their purchase.
  • If the United States or another NATO member chooses to transfer aircraft to Ukraine, should the aircraft be used, new, or a mix of both?
  • Should Congress support the provision of such aircraft by NATO allies, in addition to or as an alternative to U.S. provision?

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