A costly gift: Typhoon aircraft at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Image: UK Ministry of Defence / OGL v3.0
No options should be ruled out when it comes to helping Ukraine. But the idea of transferring UK fighter aircraft makes little military sense.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has asked the Ministry of Defence to provide options for gifting RAF fighter aircraft to Ukraine to help the country defend its skies against the continued Russian invasion.
F-35Bs are out of the question in this context for a host of technical, security, political and legal reasons. That leaves the RAF Typhoon force, and in particular the remaining Tranche 1 jets which are due to be retired around 2025. At first glance, this appears to be an admirable initiative and certainly one that has the potential to contribute to symbolically unlocking the provision of more Western fast jets. The UK’s recent offer to provide a small number of Challenger 2 tanks arguably helped spur the provision of Leopard 2 by Germany and other European operators, and Abrams by the US. However, there are significant practical limitations to any provision of Typhoons to Ukraine from UK stocks, and a very high opportunity cost in terms of RAF frontline readiness.
From a practical perspective, the Ukrainian Air Force has several key requirements for Western fighter aircraft. The most pressing is to enhance its air defence capabilities against Russian combat aircraft near the frontlines and cruise missiles inside Ukraine. The former task is extremely challenging due to the fact that Russia deploys a highly effective and multi-layered ground-based air defence (GBAD) system in Ukraine. Long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems like the infamous S-400 (SA-21) and S-300V4 (SA-23), supported by long-range radars like the 48Ya6-K1 ‘Podlet’, can threaten fighter aircraft at distances of well over 100 km behind the frontlines, even at low altitudes. Medium-range systems like the mobile SA-17 ‘Buk M2’ and short-range systems like the SA-15 ‘Tor M1/2’ add further layers of threat even against low-flying aircraft within tens of kilometres of the frontlines.
Meanwhile, the progressive attrition of Ukrainian SA-11 and SA-8 SAMs by Russian Orlan-10 UAVs and artillery and missile strikes has allowed Russian fighters to patrol at high altitudes and relatively high speeds on the Russian side of the frontlines. From this high perch they menace Ukrainian fighters, bombers, helicopters and UAVs with long-range R-37M missiles.
The Typhoon is complex to maintain, and significant numbers of specialised UK contractors and support equipment would be required to provide assistance for line maintenance in-country
Western fighters do offer a significantly enhanced capacity to push these Russian fighters back further from the frontlines and provide a better deterrent against future attempts to push deeper into Ukrainian airspace. However, they will have to fly very low to avoid the Russian GBAD threat, and so their missiles will be at a significant effective range disadvantage compared to Russian ones that are being launched from much higher up.
Only the newest and longest-range models of Western air-to-air missiles are likely to provide practical equivalence in range, limiting options to the US AIM-120D or European Meteor. Typhoon Tranche 1 are not compatible with Meteor, and the export of AIM-120C8/D would require US approval. Furthermore, the Typhoon is not really optimised for low-level flying, but rather for very high altitudes and speeds to give its missiles more range – a tactic largely negated by the Russian long-range SAM threat. Its air-to-ground capabilities are likewise limited to Paveway II bombs with the Litening III targeting pod – essentially useless in the threat environment over the frontlines in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s other major requirement for Western fighters is to be able to sustainably operate them without having them destroyed or rendered inoperable by Russian long-range missile strikes on its airbases. Here, the Typhoon is poorly suited to Ukrainian requirements. RAF sustainment and maintenance equipment and practices for the aircraft are designed around centralised, fixed bases. The aircraft has underslung air intakes that make it susceptible to engine damage from foreign object debris (FOD), which is common on the relatively austere dispersed airbases that the Ukrainian Air Force has been using to avoid being targeted by Russian strikes.
It is also designed for operations from relatively smooth runways and is not optimised for short-field landings on rough surfaces. The same goes for the F-16, which is also regularly cited as a potential fighter for Ukraine. Therefore, to operate Typhoons (or F-16s) sustainably, the Ukrainian Air Force would have to resurface and possibly extend its runways at key bases, but this would then be easily observed by Russian satellites and the bases would be struck by cruise and ballistic missiles. The Typhoon is also fairly complex to maintain, and so significant numbers of specialised UK contractors and support equipment would be required to provide assistance for line maintenance in-country, at bases that would then become prime targets for Russian strikes.
Implications for UK Defence
Then there is the question of the impact of such a putative transfer on the RAF and wider UK defence and security. The RAF’s Typhoon force has remained the first military tool committed to new crises by successive governments for the best part of a decade. It is also often one of the last to be withdrawn from operations – as evidenced by the fact that the RAF Typhoon force continues regular operational flying on Operation SHADER over Iraq and Syria, as well as Baltic Air Policing rotations, Falkland Islands defence duties, and Enhanced Vigilance Activity patrols on NATO’s Eastern flank from its main bases in the UK. The result is that the force is completely overstretched and worn out, with declining aircraft availability at the squadron level due to a shortage of spare parts, a worrying number of engineers leaving the force due to burnout, and pilots unable to get enough high-quality flight training hours to maintain critical skills or train new colleagues. This is an inevitable consequence of years of sustained high-tempo operations well beyond Defence planning assumptions.
The UK's Typhoons represent a critical source of flying hours and capacity in an overstretched and critical part of the Armed Forces
In this context, there will be a very serious cost to providing even a small number of Tranche 1 Typhoons to Ukraine. There are already far fewer available jets that could be sent than the headline figure of 53 that were originally purchased, since some of these were non-combat capable twin-seaters and others have been retired and used as a source of parts to keep others flying. The remaining jets represent a critical source of flying hours and capacity in an overstretched and critical part of the UK’s Armed Forces. Giving them to Ukraine would also require donating critical spare parts kits, removing specialist contractors from the Typhoon maintenance and support chain to send to Ukraine, and introducing a type-conversion training requirement into an already struggling RAF pilot training pipeline.
This might, conceivably, be worth it if it acted as the trigger for supplies of more operationally suitable and sustainable jets for Ukraine. The Swedish Gripen C, in particular, stands outs as particularly suitable from an operational point of view. It is explicitly designed to counter Russian SAMs and fast jets by flying very low and having an internal electronic warfare suite, and to be easy to maintain and operate from dispersed bases with mobile teams in vehicles. Swedish Air Force teams can provide servicing, re-arming and refuelling for a Gripen on a short, relatively rough airstrip or highway with just one highly trained mechanic supervising five conscripts with only a few months of training, operating from two vehicles and a fuel truck. The author recently flew in a Gripen to a dispersed base and observed this being practiced during an exercise in person. The Gripen C is also compatible with Meteor and is much more resistant to FOD damage than the Typhoon or F-16. While there are not a huge number that could theoretically be provided from spares or leased operators, there are more than the RAF has Tranche 1 Typhoons.
Since the UK wants to help Ukraine with fighter aircraft, it could offer to clear and support in advance any transfer of the aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force – which would be required since around 30% of the Gripen’s components are produced in the UK. It could also offer to contribute munitions, funding and/or other specialists to assist with such an effort. If Typhoon Tranche 1 is the symbolic silver bullet required to unlock such a deal, then the UK government must understand the costs for RAF readiness and capability of doing so, and urgently fund replacement aircraft, spare parts kits, munitions and engineering specialists to alleviate the impact on the core of the UK’s combat air capability.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Professor Justin Bronk
Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology