To supply Ukraine’s air power, we must first consider its capabilities

Defense leaders have recently opined on the U.S. divesting the vaunted and retiring A-10 Warthog ground attack plane — and its sleeker, nimbler F-16 cousin — towards modernizing Ukraine’s Air Force. 

While helping Ukraine build itself into a capable deterrent force through air power is a legitimate endeavor, those same leaders are ignoring an option that doesn’t require the same logistical and technological hurdles that come with those fourth-generation aircraft. There are cheaper, remote-capable light-attack options available that are better suited to Ukrainian needs and capacity —  and to this bizarre, contracted war between Moscow, Kyiv and Ukraine’s Western benefactors.

Ukraine undoubtedly needs airpower, and the sooner the better. It doesn’t have the same volume of people, equipment or industrial base to endure what has morphed into a war of attrition with Moscow. Ukraine could run out of artillery in just a few days if the West ceased shipping munitions to them on a weekly basis. 

So, the question is, does it make sense to ship multimillion-dollar advanced aircraft that require upwards of a year of training for basic certified military pilots to achieve baseline proficiency? There lies an inherent risk of losing those high-dollar investments to combat. Beyond that, maintaining those fourth-generation fighters, equipping and sustaining munitions and ensuring the combat readiness of their life support architectures requires dozens of highly trained airmen trained in careers dedicated entirely to each and every sub-component.

This question also applies to the Swedish Gripen, French Rafale and the Eurofighter — all fourth-generation fighter jets suggested by senior defense leaders as options in lieu of the A-10 or F-16. Those alternatives also come with comprehensive sustainment and logistical support infrastructure which right now, and maybe not for some time, Ukraine cannot reasonably be expected to support — unless NATO forces deploy to Ukraine to enable such operations, which would only serve to increase tensions with Moscow.

Alternatively, does it make more sense to zero in on cheaper, remote-oriented options that still support troops on the ground, engage with anti-armor and interdiction weapons, and, by way of simple bang-for-the-buck, are an efficient investment of military aid — since that is the only grand strategy the West can submit for this crisis? 

The United States Air Force and Special Operations Command have been developing an alternative, light-attack platform for years. The flagship for this capability manifested in the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, a sturdy, Brazilian-built aircraft that was once seen as the future of the Afghan Air Force. Afghanistan’s ability to sustain a military notwithstanding (and not of similar concern in Ukraine), this aircraft proved more than capable of executing close air support and kinetic strike options for fractions of the cost of fighter jet options.

As a prior Air Force joint terminal attack controller, I was part of the project team that brought the A-29 online, oversaw its validation down range and shepherded the Afghan Air-Ground teams through the first of many successful aerial engagements against Taliban targets. As a light attack system, the A-29 and a variety of similar, remote-capable platforms can be configured to provide close air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, armed overwatch, and airborne command and control — precisely what Ukraine needs during this protracted military operation. 

This analysis would be incomplete without addressing the Russian surface-to-air defense threat looming over Ukraine. Surface-to-air capability is a real consideration in war, and the only detractor for a slower light anti-aircraft artillery platform compared to F-16s or certainly a fifth-generation fighter.

However, Ukraine has done more than hold its own against Russian aircraft, while reports on Ukrainian aircraft losses have been minimal by comparison. What a light anti-aircraft artillery platform can do which an F-16, Rafale or Eurofighter cannot is stay low — below the vertical engagement threshold which many of the Russian surface-to-air systems require for target acquisition. Shoulder-fired systems held by Russian and proxy forces are a different threat altogether, but the dark reality is this is war. One cannot mitigate every risk and the Ukrainians need the right equipment based on capabilities now, not the advanced capabilities of the future projected in the supplied inventory today.

The A-10s future is moth balls and well-deserved war stories in heritage halls and reunions. The F-16 and its NATO equivalents are a potential future option to de-Russify Ukraine’s air power inventory. But what Kyiv needs right now are systems that its logistics and sustainment functions can support and maintain apace of operations. Like many strategic and tactical options available to support Ukraine, the West already has functional options, and light attack is one that is being overlooked by senior leadership.

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a special operations joint terminal attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.