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Ukrainian fighter pilots in old jets take on better-equipped Russians

Polish air force MiG-29 pilot Adrian Rojek performs during the Radom Air Show at an airport in Poland on Aug. 23, 2015. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

ODESSA, Ukraine — The fighter pilot known as “Juice” usually just has a few minutes to scramble. When he is on-call, which is pretty much always these days, he cannot be more than a bathroom break away from his cockpit. When a cruise missile or a Russian fighter is spotted moving toward the area Juice is assigned to by the Ukrainian air force, he doesn’t even have time to run through standard safety checks before taking off.

“We’re ready to be killed,” said Juice, who provided only his call sign for security reasons.

“But we don’t want this, of course,” the 29-year-old added. “We want to kill Russians and take down their bombers that are killing our cities and our families.”

Juice is one of the pilots helping Ukraine pull off the biggest surprise of this war: Its military has kept the airspace over Ukraine contested despite Russia’s more advanced jets and superior numbers. But he and other pilots say that’s not enough. While Kyiv’s forces have perhaps even outperformed Moscow’s on the ground, Russia has continued to inflict heavy losses on Ukraine from the sky.

Washington Post Pentagon and national security reporter Karoun Demirjian explains the difficulties of deciding which weapons to send Ukraine. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed to the United States and other NATO allies to establish a no-fly zone over the country — a step that leaders in the military alliance refused to take, citing fears of touching off a world war with Moscow. Now Zelensky is pushing for more advanced air-defense systems and jets.

But Juice and others have said the weapons that countries have discussed transferring to Ukraine — particularly Russian-made MiG-29 fighters and U.S.-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles — won’t help Kyiv’s air force tip the scales in its favor. The gap between the weapons Ukraine wants and what Western countries are willing to supply has become a key tension nearly two months into the fighting.

Nowhere is that divide more evident than in the proposed air materiel transfers. Juice flies the MiG-29, which is a Soviet-era staple of the Ukrainian air force. But he said Ukrainian pilots are “just targets” for Russian adversaries who fly far more advanced jets. Obtaining more outdated MiGs would not improve Ukraine’s position in the skies, he said.

“We have losses almost everyday in our air force,” he added. “You won’t see this on TV because everything is classified right now, but actually we have a lot of losses. That’s why we need to be technically equal with the Russians. Just our mental advantage is not enough to fight with these technologies.”

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Poland last month offered to send a number of MiG-29 jets to Ukraine via a U.S. air base in Germany, blindsiding U.S. officials. In exchange, Poland requested that the United States send it replacement planes, presumably newer U.S.-manufactured F-16s, which would constitute a major upgrade. Washington rejected the plan.

Then on Monday, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger told reporters that Slovakia will consider providing Ukraine MiG-29 fighters if alternative protection of its own airspace can be arranged.

But for Ukrainian pilots, more MiG-29s aren’t the answer. The jets Poland offered to transfer them are even older — some date back to the late ’80s — than their current stock.

“I think the Ukrainians are right — you’re basically a target in the air if you don’t have any of that modern capability,” said Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, a retired U.S. Air Force general. “It’s not just an airplane up there. You have to have all of that sophisticated equipment on it to make it really a viable air platform.”

Countries have proposed sending Ukrainians MiG-29s in large part because that’s what the country’s pilots already know how to fly. If they received F-16s, Carlisle said, it’s not just the pilots who would have to learn a flight system he described as “significantly different” from Soviet-style jets; personnel on the ground would have to train on how maintain the aircraft and load them with compatible munitions.

But Juice and another Ukrainian pilot, whose call sign is “Nomad,” said the learning curve isn’t as substantial as it’s often made out to be. Nomad, who is in the United States as part of a training program, said it would probably take Ukrainians about two weeks to learn the nuances of the U.S.-made F-series planes.

Many of the pilots already speak English and have participated in joint exercises with the U.S. Air Force, so they’re familiar with the terminology of those planes’ systems, they said.

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The pilots were also critical of the effectiveness of Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which have been part of U.S. aid packages. Nomad said that “it’s almost impossible” to hit an agile, fast-moving Russian jet with the missiles. Carlisle agreed, adding that Stingers aren’t designed to take down fighters — they’re intended to be used against helicopters and other slow-moving, low-flying aircraft.

If Western countries are hesitant to give Ukraine modern jets its pilots haven’t trained on, Juice said they should at least consider sending more advanced air-defense systems. He said those are much easier to learn how to operate.

Military analysts expected Russia to wipe out Ukraine’s air-defense systems, airfields and aircraft on the very first day of the war, when Moscow still had the element of surprise. But Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia “didn’t really go for a death blow,” and in some cases, their missiles hit the airfield but missed the runway.

Ukrainian pilots were able to improvise from there. Juice said the fight in the sky doesn’t feel fair when he’s going up against a more modern Russian jet. He often has to just avoid his adversary entirely to stay alive. Sometimes, he and his fellow pilots manage to trick the Russians into flying into an area where the Ukrainians have an air-defense system ready and waiting.

Analysts at the Oryx Blog, which tracks Russian military losses, documented 20 aircraft and 30 helicopters destroyed or damaged in Ukraine.

“We are just trying to do something nonstandard, and sometimes it’s successful and sometimes it’s not,” Juice said. “Sometimes they’re just stupid and Russians are just showing their incompetence and underestimating our training.

“But in general, we cannot gain a real air superiority, unfortunately.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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