A top US general is calling on American and other Western officials to explore sending fighter planes to Ukraine “as soon as possible,” as Washington escalates its offensive against Moscow.
The commanding general of the California National Guard said in a statement to POLITICO on Friday that sending Soviet-era MiG fighters in the near term is the best “immediate solution.”
“MiGs are the best immediate solution to support the Ukrainians, but US or western fighters are options that should be explored as soon as possible,” said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, California National Guard adjutant general.
A day earlier Baldwin told reporters that US military officials were working with Ukrainian counterparts on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to the US and its allies for fighter jets to help fight the Russian war.
A three-way deal to send US F-16s to Poland if Warsaw provided MiGs to Ukraine collapsed in March when the US said it would not support the transfer, but California National Guard officials are still “steering them” toward the Soviet-era planes in the near term.
“There is a lot of goodness in them going to MiGs because they are already trained in that, but if they are going to use Western-type aircraft, it’s a discussion about numbers and types and capabilities of aircraft that may be available,” Baldwin said.
Members of the California National Guard have an old connection with the Ukrainian military. They have been training with their Ukrainian counterparts in Eastern Europe under a state partnership since the 1990s.
Baldwin said Guard members have also been helping to craft the Ukrainian government’s requests to the US military for weapons to use against Russian forces since Russia launched a military operation against the country in February.
Lt. Col. Brandon Hill, a spokesperson for the California National Guard, said that the White House and the Pentagon would make a final decision about providing US-made fighters to Kyiv.
But he pointed out that even before the war the US wants to see Ukraine become “NATO-interoperable,” including giving them the opportunity to operate Western fighters.
Baldwin noted that California Guard members are communicating with Ukrainian troops and airmen every day to share tactics and ideas.
“At our one-star generals, down to our colonels and some of our senior NCOs, they engage with Ukrainian leaders, the Ukrainian defense attaché and others, to help them refine their requests in terms of types of weapons systems are asking for and providing them information of things that might be available at the more tactical level,” Baldwin said Thursday. “The current one that we are working through is, ‘what’s the right fighter aircraft for them?’”
While “we are steering them toward those MiGs first,” there is also an “over-the-horizon” discussion of what aircraft will be needed in the future, Baldwin said.
“In the midterm, over the course of the next six months to the year and then the long term: What’s in the realm of possibility for systems that would be effective, available and affordable for them?” he said.
Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia, which are all NATO members, operate the MiG-29, but their limited inventories are on the way out. The US approved the sale of several F-16s to Bulgaria in April. Slovakia will replace its Soviet-era jets with US F-16s in 2024. Poland meanwhile signed a deal in 2020 for 32 F-35s.
This comes amid reports of a massive US-led transfer of advanced weapons into Ukraine despite Russian warnings that the huge delivery of modern armaments might fall into the hands of terrorists who might use weapons, such as the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, to threaten civilian aviation.