‘Surprise move’: US stunned by Poland’s offer of fighter jets

A senior administration official told Politico that US intelligence services and the Department of Defense opposed the transfer of Polish planes to Ukraine, due to the complications in moving them across the border and into the hands of Ukrainian pilots. Nor did the Polish government consult with its American counterparts before the announcement.

Defense spokesman John Kirby’s statement reflected that deep concern late Tuesday, saying “we do not believe Poland’s proposal is defensible,” and “it simply is not clear to us that there is a rationale for it.”

Kirby noted that logistics were problematic: re-equipping the plane to allow non-NATO Ukrainian pilots to fly it, along with “the possibility of fighter jets… departing from a US/NATO base in Germany to fly in the contested airspace with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

However, the United States has been in contact with the Polish government about the proposal.

In the minutes following the sudden announcement by the Polish Foreign Ministry, a senior State Department official struggled to explain to Congress what had just happened.

“To my knowledge, we have not been consulted in advance about their intention to deliver these aircraft to us,” Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “I was in a meeting where I should have known that right before I came,” Noland said. “So I think this was actually a surprising move by the Poles.”

In a statement posted on its website, the Polish Foreign Ministry offered to send all of its Russian-made MiG-29 combat aircraft “immediately and free of charge” to the US air base in Ramstein, Germany.

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In return, the statement said that Warsaw “requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready immediately to establish conditions for the purchase of aircraft.”

Poland also called on other NATO allies operating the MiG-29 “to work in the same vein”.

Ukraine also flies the MiG-29 and has suffered heavy losses since the invasion of Russia late last month. Since then, senior Ukrainian officials have asked other countries operating the aircraft to move their MiG-29s, as this would mean minimal training for Ukrainian pilots.

By transferring the planes to American escorts rather than handing them over directly to the Ukrainians, the Polish government would avoid the logistical challenge of passing planes across the border, although it is not clear whether the United States can legally accept the transfer of Polish planes. .

Polish MiGs were upgraded in 2013 and 2014 with new avionics and other equipment to increase their lifespan, although the Polish Air Force has focused more on its growing fleet of F-16s, along with 32 incoming F-35s. , the first of which will arrive in 2024. It is likely that some of the new and sensitive technologies installed on the MiGs will be withdrawn before they are transferred to the Ukrainians.

A senior Defense Department official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the airspace over Ukraine remains disputed, with neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians owning the skies.

“Ukrainians are still capable of aviation and missile defense,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. “The Russians continue to fly and are also capable of missile defense — very little of the country of Ukraine is not covered by some kind of Russian surface-to-air missile capability.”

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The aircraft saga began just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, when the European Union’s security chief, Josep Borrell, said Poland, along with other eastern European countries that still fly Russian fighter jets, had agreed to quickly transfer the planes to Ukrainian pilots.

It turns out that this is not the case. Borrell later retracted those comments, saying it was up to individual countries to decide, and Polish President Andrzej Duda publicly rejected the agreement.

But US officials confirmed this weekend That a possible transfer was still under discussion. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday that the United States is working with Poland on plans to provide Ukraine with MiG-29s, and “refill whatever they give the Ukrainians” on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

However, Warsaw seemed etched, with a government office tweeting on Sunday that “Poland will not send its fighter planes to Ukraine and will not allow the use of its airports. We are helping tremendously in many other areas.”

As for Poland’s request for American aircraft, it is likely to receive F-16s in exchange for abandoning the MiG-29s.

Other countries operating the MiG-29s include Slovakia and Bulgaria, although both countries last week rejected the idea of ​​moving their planes.

Slovakia’s small fleet of MiG-29s is the country’s only combat aircraft, and the government is uneasy about losing any of its air power until it finalizes an agreement with Poland to provide protection for Slovak airspace.

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