Western countries are dumping weapons into Ukraine, but no arms deal has drawn as much attention as whether to give the Ukrainians about 20 old Polish MiG-29 fighter jets. The Biden administration halted a transfer because it was not “sustainable”, arguing that the additional Soviet-designed jets would not be useful enough on the battlefield to justify what Vladimir Putin might perceive as an escalation.
The MiGs exploded into a larger debate: Is Mr. Putin dictating what weapons America can send to its friends? The administration says ground-based air defenses would be more useful, and it is working with allies who have versions the Ukrainians know how to use, a welcome development. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki acidly noted that she had been asked about the MiGs “167 times.” But if MiGs aren’t effective at killing Russians, how are they escalating?
Here’s a compromise that would salvage American credibility and show ingenuity: Destroy the Polish MiGs and send the parts to Ukraine. Defense Ministry officials said the Ukrainians still had serviceable aircraft. But they are at war with the country that produced these planes, and an infusion of parts could be put to good use in supporting their fleet, like retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston, who was Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2000 to 2003, explained recently at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event.
In 2002, General Ralston took a ride in a German-owned MiG-29. “What I remember most from that day was that the Germans complained about the difficulty of maintaining these planes because all the spare parts had to come from Moscow.”
Then, when relations with Russia were correct, when the German air force needed a part for the MiG, it “had to go to the German MOD” – Ministry of Defense – “which had to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had to go to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. . . and down the food chain to get the spare part. And you can imagine how frustrating it was to maintain the planes. The Germans sold their MiG-29s to the Poles.
It might be particularly useful to have more MiG-29 engines, which are known to wear out quickly. Aircraft cannibalization could happen quickly, and shipping parts is no more logistically difficult than shipping other types of military equipment. No pilot needs to take off from a western base.
The United States should help the Poles find replacement aircraft, but modernizing Polish defenses would pay a double dividend as Russia moves closer to North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. New F-16s rolling off the line are talked about – the US is trying to speed up deliveries to Taiwan, for example. But the US Air Force hinted that it would be able to supply used F-16s to Poland.
Before the United States entered World War II, they brought planes to the Canadian border to help the British while remaining neutral. America needs such creativity now. Reliable information on Ukrainian air operations has been difficult to obtain – US officials have suggested the Ukrainians do not fly many sorties – and the MiG-29s are old and limited aircraft. But Americans can appreciate the instinct of a fighter pilot who wants to defend his country for as long as possible, no matter the risks.
Ms. Odell is a member of the Journal’s Editorial Board.
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