Ukrainian servicemen walk in front of Ukrainian Su-24 and Su-27 combat jets during a 2018 exercise at Starokostyantyniv in western Ukraine.

Ukrainian servicemen walk in front of Ukrainian Su-24 and Su-27 combat jets during a 2018 exercise at Starokostyantyniv in western Ukraine. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian Fighter Pilots: Send Better Jets and Air Defenses

They’ve shot down a few Russian cruise missiles—but they could do far more with modern gear.

Ukraine has been asking the West for advanced fighter jets for months. Now Kyiv’s fighter pilots are pressing the case themselves. 

In a series of interviews with Western media, two Ukrainian fighter pilots—“Juice” and “Moonfish,” a MiG-29 squadron commander—plus a Ukrainian Air Force anti-aircraft officer are highlighting what’s missing from the recent shipments of foreign weapons: modern ground and air defense systems, and modern fighter jets. 

The pilots spoke to reporters on the condition that their locations and real names not be used. 

The ability to stop Russian cruise missiles is a top priority, the Ukrainians said.  

“We need modern systems that are able to detect cruise missiles,” particularly ones that are small or supersonic, the anti-aircraft officer said. For example, Ukraine has no defense against Russia’s supersonic 1960s and 1970s-era X-22 rockets. 

Ukraine’s fighter aircraft were inherited from its Soviet past, including MiG-29s, Su-24 Fencers, and Su-25 Frogfoots. Their pilots have managed to shoot down a few Russian cruise missiles, but it would be a lot easier with a modern jet that carries advanced radars, the pilots said.  

“It is close to impossible to have a radar lock of the cruise missile” with their existing jets, Moonfish said. “In the latest cases, almost all the cases where we were able to shut them down …was when the guys had infrared [search] lock on them.They have a heat signature of course, and that’s how we are able to do that.” 

“It's a problem for our jets,” Juice said. For Western fighters, “it's a usual target for them. It's still pretty difficult, but it's not a problem.” 

Ukraine’s Air Force has destroyed more than 500 targets, including 140 Russian aircraft. It’s taken losses as well, but won’t disclose numbers.

“We do have a lot more pilots than jets at this point,” Moonfish said.  

The pilots want F-16s or something similar. They say they could spin up their most advanced pilots on the F-16s in “just a few days to control this platform,” and could speed up follow-on training by having different groups of pilots specialize in the Falcon’s different specialties, such as suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD. 

They also said the Air Force even has trouble getting what they need from Kyiv, because the ground forces have more representation on the general staff.

“The aerial war is happening everywhere around the country, so we need much more air-defense aids and fighter platforms to cover,” Juice said.  

The U.S. has provided weapons worth more than $6 billion to Ukraine since February, and they have gradually become more complex; from planeloads of Javelin anti-tank missiles just before the invasion, to M777 howitzers by spring; to HIMARS rockets and truck-launched Harpoon missiles in the last few weeks. 

But fighter aircraft have been a non-starter, including transfers of non-Western jets from other Eastern European nations. In March, after some suggested sending Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine, then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said such a move would be seen as “escalatory” and that it could provoke “significant Russian reaction.” 

Last week, as the U.S. announced another $1 billion worth of aid, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the package, which did not include jets, was based on needs identified by Ukraine for their near-term fight in the Donbas.