A former UK defence chief has told i that Vladimir Putin “won’t like it” if the UK supplies jets to Ukraine, but there is an important distinction between supplying hardware and personnel.
During the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to London on Wednesday the Downing Street confirmed that Rishi Sunak had asked the Defence Secretary to look into the possibility of sending jets to Ukraine, following a direct plea from President Zelensky.
While President Putin is likely to repeat claims that such an escalation would put Russia at war with Nato nations, the former British Army Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009, General Lord Richard Dannatt, believes “no such claim would be legitimate”.
In an interview with i, the retired senior British Army officer, he said: “Putin won’t like it in the same way as he says he doesn’t like all the other stuff we’re giving Ukraine.
“An aircraft is only another piece of equipment. Putting in our pilots to fly those aircraft is quite another thing, and we’re not talking about that.
“Giving them tanks that the Ukrainians are going to crew giving them fighter jets that the Ukrainians are going to crew. That’s the same principle.
“Putin is fighting Nato equipment. He is not fighting Nato personnel. That’s an important distinction.”
Lord Dannett added that the key question is what fighter jets the UK is realistically in a position to offer Ukraine.
The UK has two main fighter jets in active service, the Eurofighter Typhoon, of which the air force has 101 in service, and 26 US-made F-35s, which are used on the Royal Navy’s only current aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth.
“I am interested to see what the Ministry of Defence can offer. I mean, we don’t have a huge stock of modern fast jets to spare,” said Lord Dannett.
“I don’t think there’s any question on giving them F-35s from carriers. Our Tornados are coming out of service.
“So, that just leaves Typhoons, which will take weeks going into months to train Ukrainian pilots in.
“The only other option is if they’re planning to gift Hawker trainers that are kitted out very simple weapon systems.
“Frankly, I think it would be unreasonable to give those to Ukraine and expect their pilots to put themselves in harm’s way.”
The UK has also revealed it has extended its training of Ukrainian forces to its pilots ahead of any final decision on whether to provide President Zelensky with the jets he requested from the Prime Minister during a meeting in Downing Street.
Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded British forces during the Iraq War in 2003, added: “It’s not about the jets. It’s about the whole logistics setup for Ukraine and training the pilots.
“It’s not like Spitfires to Poland and the Second World War. These are very complicated machines that need a lot of logistics and a lot of sustainability – a lot of training. So, I’m not sure we’d be doing Ukraine a favour in the short term by saying we’ll supply them.
There is also talk in Washington that President Joe Biden may also be edging closer to pledging fighter jets to Ukraine.
President Zelensky has kept American-made F-16 jets on his list of desired weapons since the Russian invasion almost a year ago.
One Washington source suggested that the Pentagon was moving towards recommending to President Biden that the US does supply the jets to Ukraine.
“There’s nothing firm yet, but mood is certainly shifting towards providing F-16s to Ukraine. Military officials are beginning to push talk about it more.
“If we can provide tanks along with many other allies, then there’s a growing argument that we can provide jets.
“They are just another piece of kit after all. We could hear more in the coming weeks, if not sooner, one way or the other, but the momentum is swinging behind the idea of it at the moment.”
There are also rumours in military circles that the US may also already be training Ukrainian pilots on its jets, with some suggesting this may be taking place at US Air Force bases in the UK.