The United States is working with Poland on the transfer of fighter planes to Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues to edge closer to its capital Kyiv and other large cities.  The Polish air force operates about 288 aircraft of various types with about 90 fighters in its inventory.  Poland operates two air superiority fighters, 23 Mig-29 Fulcrums,  36 General Dynamics F-16F Falcon, and 23 Sukoi SU-22M Fitter fighter/bombers which are relics of the late 1960s.

In 2020, Poland was approved for the purchase of 32 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters in a $4.6 billion deal.  The first of these jets were to be delivered in 2024.  In considering the transfer, Poland is seeking assurances from the U.S. that it will allow them to replace any jets sent to Ukraine with new jets from the U.S.

Presumably, the jets Poland intends to transfer will be its 23 Mig-29 Fulcrums and perhaps its SU-22Ms.

Polish air force Mig-29 Fulcrum. Jim van de Burgt from Wijk bij Duurstede, Netherlands. Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

The Fulcrum was the first of Russia’s Fourth Generation fighters meant as a counter for the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter.  At the time of its introduction in 1982, it was able to turn tighter than any NATO fighter and was armed with the very best air-to-air missiles the Soviet Union could produce.  The design had its shortcomings however in that is electronics and avionics packages were simple and it would have a much shorter service life and shorter-range compared to American fighters.

The Mig-29 has seven external hardpoints for weapons, allowing it to carry two medium-range air to air missiles and six short-range missiles. It can also be configured to carry four unguided rocket pods or up to 3,000kg of iron bombs.  Its internal 30mm cannon has 150 rounds of ammunition.  The Fulcrum is unable to drop smart munitions as it lacks the optical and laser designation hardware needed to employ precision-guided weapons.

Today both the Russians and Ukrainians operate the Mig-29 though it is well past its expiration date in terms of it being a modern fighter. Even with upgrades to its electronics and missiles, the short-range and maintenance hours needed to keep them in the air mean that it will spend lots of time on the ground where it is vulnerable to being hit by long-range missiles. Ukraine had some 90 Mig-29s in their inventory when the war started and an unknown number were destroyed on the ground by Russia in the early hours of the war.

Beyond the transfer of the aircraft themselves, Poland would also have to include any spare engines, equipment, tools, and spare parts they have in order for Ukraine to keep the aircraft flying once they receive them. Ukraine would also need any air-to-air missiles, rocket pods, and other weapons load-outs that Poland has in inventory.

Since Poland’s Mig-29s were “leased” to them by Germany, they will have to approve the transfer as well and will be seeking compensation from Poland for the jets going to Ukraine to pay for any not returned because they are destroyed in combat or on the ground.

Since Ukraine already operates the Mig-29, its pilots would be able to take them into combat quickly which is not the case with the F-16F Falcons the Polish airforce also flies.  Additionally, the electronics and weapons on the F-16F are under strict transfer controls imposed by the U.S. as a condition of their sale to Poland.  They cannot be simply given to Ukraine without concern that the Russians would recover one that has been shot down and examined and war or no war, the U.S. may be very reluctant to grant approval to Poland. Ukraine’s pilots would also have to be specially trained to fly the F-16 and master its systems and this would take time Ukraine may not have. To send its pilots into combat in a plane they are barely familiar with would be near suicidal for them.

For these reasons, the transfer of F-16Fs to Ukraine from Poland seems very unlikely.

Polish air force SU-22 Fitter Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

The SU-22s in Poland’s inventory are ancient relics of the Cold war that even older than dinosaurs in the U.S. inventory like the A-10 Thunderbolt, first introduced in 1977.  Introduced in 1966, the SU-22 if used strictly as a ground attack aircraft it could present some advantages to Ukraine if Poland transferred them over.  The SU-22 is very simply built and can operate off of short, unprepared runways without fouling its engine. It is capable of 1,000 mph speeds at low altitudes, which is where the Ukrainians would have to fly them since the Sukhoi lacks any real defense against modern surface-to-air missiles. Generally, it is not the practice of Eastern armies of former Warsaw Pact countries to fly missions at low altitudes so this may be something of a challenge to Ukrainian pilots.

Another plus for the SU-22 is that it has eight weapons hardpoints that can carry up to 8,000lbs of ordnance including bombs, rockets, anti-radiation missiles, air-to-air missiles, and air-to-surface missiles. If sortied with Mig-29s as fighter cover, the 23 SU-22s attacking a position could deliver quite a punch.  If they are used in ones and twos in a ground attack role, they would not survive long.

The learning curve on this aircraft is not going to be a steep one for Ukraine’s pilots, as they already operate Sukhois like the Su-24, SU-25, and SU-27, so the cockpit layout will be familiar to them. The SU-22 is also said to be easy to fly and maintain with parts readily available on the open market.

Poland may well transfer these aircraft to Ukraine as well since they announced that they would be replaced with a squadron of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to do reconnaissance and ground attack and are looking for a buyer for them.

Given the expense and limited production run of the modern F-35 fighter, the most likely replacement for Poland’s Mig-29s would be more F-16s which remains the most sought-after fighter plane in the world. To support this existing demand for new F-16 Fighting Falcons from friendly nations, Lockheed Martin Corp. opened a new production line to build the F-16 Block 70/72 fighter aircraft at the company’s facility in Greenville, South Carolina in 2019.  The Air Force had awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. approximately $14 billion, to build 128 new production F-16V Vipers at the new facility through 2026 to fill international orders. If this transfer of jets by Poland to Ukraine goes through under terms of replacement by the U.S., it is possible that other Eastern European countries operating the Mig-29 and other Russian aircraft may also seek to transfer them to Ukraine in exchange for U.S. aircraft.

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