Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Allies Of Freedom: Slovakia Mulls Delivery Of MiG-29s To Ukraine

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
As one of the smallest militaries in NATO, Slovakia has nevertheless played an important part in providing Ukraine with the types of armament it requires to hold off Russia's invasion. In addition to 12.000 120mm mortar rounds, MANPADS and ATGMs, this has also included the country's sole S-300PMU surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. [1] [2] This system essentially constituted the country's only viable ground-based deterrence against enemy aircraft, a capability Slovakia was willing to give up in an effort to bolster Ukraine's battered arsenal of SAM systems. Whilst the resulting gap will be filled by U.S. Patriot SAM systems deployed to Slovakia in the short term, the country will have to acquire a system of its own to replace this capability lost in the long term, or else forgo it entirely. [3]

Slovakia is currently also considering donating its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighter aircraft to Ukraine, a move that would finally give heed to President Zelensky's long-standing request for additional fighter aircraft. [4] [5] While the actual merit of additional fighter aircraft to Ukraine is debatable (along with many of Zelensky's other requests for heavy weaponry), it is certain that the delivery of MiG-29s to Ukraine would be a huge morale boost to both its citizens and military, and finally satisfy Ukraine's most vocal request ever since Russia began its invasion on February 24.

The Slovak Air Force officially operates nine single-seat MiG-29AS fighters and two MiG-29UBS trainers out of Sliac air base in Central Slovakia. Only five MiG-29AS' and one MiG-29UBS are currently believed to be operational to meet a minimum requirement for air policing while the Air Force awaits their replacement by 12 single-seat and 2 double-seat F-16V Block 70/72s in 2023. All of Slovakia's MiG-29s were upgraded by RSK MiG to NATO standards between 2005 and 2008 and designated MiG-29AS and MiG-29UBS (S for Slovakia), but otherwise retain their original capabilities from when they were first delivered to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s.
Unfortunately, this means the MiG-29AS' are actually less advanced than Ukraine's own 60-strong fleet of MiG-29 9.13s and MiG-29MU1s (an upgraded variant of the MiG-29 9.13), which has thus far suffered at least four (visually confirmed) losses during the 2022 invasion. [6] [7] Although Ukraine has been adamant that it needs additional fighter aircraft to defend its cities and ground forces against Russian aircraft and helicopters, such a task would arguably be better handled by additional mobile SAM systems. Despite popular perception, there has been little indication so far suggesting that Ukrainian fighter aircraft have managed to significantly disrupt the daily operations of the Russian Air Force.

Even though the U.S. had previously looked at Poland and Bulgaria to potentially secure a supply for additional MiG-29s to Ukraine, the MiG-29 is interestingly enough not on Ukraine's wishlist. In documents setting out the Ukrainian military's requests that were obtained by these authors, the desired aid would have included the delivery of brand-new F-15EXs, F-15SEs and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. Apart from the fact that the F-15SE 'Silent Eagle' was merely a proposal aircraft that was never built and that the USAF is only just receiving the first of its F-15EX Eagle IIs, such a request also completely ignores the fact that it would take months for Ukrainian personnel to become familiar with these types, let alone for them to learn tactics that would allow them to be effectively used.

Slovakia's MiG-29s wear this attractive pixelated camouflage pattern.

Earlier attempts at providing Ukraine with Poland's and Bulgaria's MiG-29s failed to come to fruition, presumably because such a delivery was judged too (politically) risky and cumbersome, especially when compared with the more simple (and politically safer) delivery of ground-based assets such as ATGMs and MANPADS. It's also possible that Poland likewise views the delivery of MiG-29s to Ukraine as excess to Ukraine's actual defensive needs. Combined with the fact that the Polish Air Force would quickly have to find replacements for the air defence capabilities lost by transferring its MiG-29s as tensions with Russia are at an all time high, it is no large surprise that the delivery never materialised.

The same considerations affect Slovakia, which has previously indicated that donation of its MiG-29s is only possible when guarantees are given that its airspace would still be protected after losing its entire fighter aircraft capability (at least until 2023). Such a guarantee could be realised by having the Polish or Czech Air Force take over Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties for Slovakia, or by temporarily stationing NATO aircraft in Slovakia to provide air policing duties instead.

If a transfer does take place, the aircraft will likely be stationed on air bases in Western Ukraine. Their dispersal and frequent relocation around the air base could significantly increase their survivability, and thereby force Russia to increase its current efforts to ground the Ukrainian Air Force. As Russia has still failed to do so after two months of war, there is little indication that they would soon be successful. Though the concrete contribution in terms of enemy equipment destroyed may not be substantial, the mere fact that the opposing side will need to adjust its operations to prevent losses can have a very real effect on the situation on the ground.

In terms of logistics and existing knowledge base, the potential Slovakian delivery would probably be the most realistic plan for air assets to be delivered to Ukraine so far. With pilots already trained on the type, and commonality of weaponry and infrastructure, a smooth transition into Ukrainian Air Force service is likely. This is true not in small part because the delivery can be expected to concern no more than a handful of aircraft, making their integration straightforward, but their potential impact limited.In this sense, the symbolism and heartening effect these aircraft can convey might well outstrip their actual combat efficacy.

Components of the S-300PMU battery on their way to Ukraine, April 8, 2022.

Slovakia has already proven that you don't need to be a large country with a sizeable military to provide meaningful materiel support. As other NATO countries like Germany and France have so far hold off on delivering heavy weaponry like AFVs and artillery to Ukraine, Central European countries like Slovakia, Poland and Czechia are picking up the slack and keeping Ukraine fighting. Whether Slovakia's MiG-29AS' will soon join the fray remains to be seen, though their inclusion in Slovakia's immaculate record of support is not needed to prove its status as one of the staunchest allies of freedom in Europe.

[1] Slovakia to send artillery ammunition, fuel worth 11 mln euros to Ukraine https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/slovakia-send-military-material-worth-26-mln-euros-ukraine-media-2022-02-26/
[3] U.S. to place Patriot missile defense system in Slovakia to help with Ukraine swap https://www.npr.org/2022/04/08/1091711705/us-missile-defense-system-slovakia-ukraine
[4] Slovakia ready to donate MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine https://kafkadesk.org/2022/04/15/slovakia-ready-to-donate-mig-29-fighter-jets-to-ukraine/
[5] Slovakia in talks over possible transfer of MiG jets to Ukraine https://www.politico.eu/article/slovakia-mig-jets-to-ukraine-prime-minister-eduard-heger-bratislava/
[6] Guardians of the Ukraine: The Ukrainian Air Force Since 1992 https://books.google.com/books/about/Guardians_of_the_Ukraine.html
[7] List Of Aircraft Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine   Slovakia in talks over possible transfer of MiG jets to Ukraine