‘Wings for Freedom’ or Ukrainian Flights of Fancy

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) reacts as Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) speaks during a joint press conferenceInternationalIndiaAfricaScott RitterColumnistLet there be no doubt — Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian and television celeb-turned-president of Ukraine — is a star.In a performance deserving of the Oscar that US actor Sean Penn gifted him, Zelensky delivered an emotional address to the British Parliament designed to get even the most stoic English hearts beat faster. “London has stood with Kiev since day one,” Zelensky told his audience. “Since the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war. Great Britain,” he added, “you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.”Then, in a move any Hollywood director would admire, Zelensky turned to Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, and handed him a fighter pilot’s helmet.Like an actor who recognizes the emotional impact of the moment, and ad-libs a line, Zelensky continued: “In Britain, the King is an air force pilot. And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king for us, for our families,” he said. “It’s the helmet of a real Ukrainian pilot. He is one of our most successful aces. He is one of our kings. And the writing on the helmet reads: ‘We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.’”Zelensky then delivered the line of the moment: “I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom.”Whether the helmet actually belonged to a real Ukrainian “ace” or was the byproduct of an ongoing propaganda campaign that had previously propagated such elaborate hoax’s as the “Ghost of Kiev”, is not known.What is known, however, is that Zelensky’s emotional appeal for advanced western fighter aircraft has about as much chance as manifesting itself as the non-existent Ukrainian legendary fighter pilot—zero.Four Reasons Leopard 2s & M1 Abrams Will Bite the Dust in Ukraine27 January, 18:00 GMTEarlier in the day, prior to Zelensky’s emotional appeal to the British Parliament, the Ukrainian president spoke to the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who helped breathe life into the notion of British aircraft with Ukrainian pilots sweeping the skies over Ukraine of the Russian Air Force. “The first step in being able to provide advanced aircraft is to have soldiers or aviators that are capable of using them,” Sunak told reporters. “That is a process. It takes some time. We started that process today.”While Sunak noted that the question of when such fighter aircraft could be provided was very much in the air, the fact that he committed to providing aircraft which, prior to his announcement, had been viewed by the US and other NATO members as a red line for Russia which should not be crossed, put pressure of those same nations to be seen as matching the British commitment to Ukrainian security.British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, however, added a dose of reality to Zelensky’s flight of fantasy. Speaking at a conference in Rome, Wallace noted that the processes involved in transferring fighter aircraft to Ukraine would take months. “This is not a simple case of towing aircraft to the border,” Wallace said. Wallace implied that the UK might be better off supplying Ukraine with long-range drones and surface-to-surface missiles. “Britain knows what Ukraine needs and is very happy to help in many ways trying to achieve the effect,” Wallace said. “Those same effects can be done, but potentially through a different way—and without taking months, which of course, gifting fighter jets would take.”And while Zelensky continued to double down on his request—no, demand—for western combat aircraft at a conference in Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron was joined by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “The sooner Ukraine gets long-range heavy weaponry, the sooner our pilots get planes, the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we can return to peace in Europe,” Zelensky declared. “There is very little time.”And therein lies the rub.Zelensky had earlier said, when speaking about the US promise to provide M-1 Abrams main battle tanks, that time was not on Ukraine’s side when it came to the delivery of new, more advanced weapons. “It’s not about politics, it’s about concrete outcomes on the battlefield,” the embattled Ukrainian president said. When asked by a reporter whether the potential arrival of the Abrams tank on the Ukrainian battlefield in August would be too late, Zelensky shot back: “too late.”The fact of the matter is Zelensky and his NATO allies are running up against the harsh reality that while the issue of the provision of new, advanced weaponry such as tanks and fighter aircraft is being discussed in European capitals, Russia is on the cusp of initiating a major offensive most military observers assess with result in a decisive Russian victory.Beyond the actual provision of physical aircraft, there is the question of training Ukrainian pilots capable of flying them in combat. Rishi Sunak had cautioned that, from the British perspective, it was important that Ukraine had pilots who could “actually operate the aircraft that they will be using,” to which Zelensky shot back, “Come on, we will be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years.”WorldDemands for Supply of Combat Aircraft, Submarines to Kiev Harm Allies’ Unity: Scholz8 February, 12:57 GMTThe curious thing is that Zelensky began his “Wings for Freedom” crusade in the United Kingdom, a nation that does not fly the aircraft that is on everyone’s lips when it comes to the reconstitution of the Ukrainian Air Force—the ubiquitous US-made F-16 Fighting Falcon. The British excursion was designed not to elicit aircraft from the British as it was to set a political precedent for others to follow—especially those nations possessing quantities of F-16’s that could, in theory at least, be transferred to Ukraine.The United States has shown extreme reticence when it comes to the potential of providing Ukraine with F-16 aircraft—President Biden shot down a reporter’s question about this possibility with a curt “no” when recently asked. Since the F-16 is a US-manufactured aircraft, no nation possessing F-16s would be able to provide them to Ukraine without US permission.Even if they were to provide F-16 aircraft to Ukraine, it is not the game changer everyone thinks it is. A recent article comparing the F-16 with the Russian Su-35 fighter found that “while the F-16 remains a potent fighter, potential adversaries have caught up—the latest Russian aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-35 can match or exceed the Viper in many respects.” Even if the F-16 receives critical upgrades, such as the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, it still is no match for the Su-35. Most US F-16s lack this radar upgrade, and none of the F-16s that could go to Ukraine would possess it either.But this isn’t the worst part of the story for Zelensky and Ukraine. To fly the F-16, Ukraine would need pilots trained in its operations. The US Air National Guard has, for two decades, operated a special six-month “International Initial Qualification Course (Advanced)” course to help experienced pilots from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia transition away from Soviet-era Mig fighter aircraft to the F-16 fighter. Even if Ukrainian pilots were to start such transition training today, they wouldn’t be available until August, which as the Ukrainian president had noted, is too late.In short, the F-16 is more a flight of fancy than a manifestation of Zelensky’s “Wings for Freedom” concept, a nice bit of theoretical theater that politicians and pundits can play with, but which, in the end, is as fictional as was the “Ghost of Kiev.”


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