UK fighter jets are like ‘rocket ships’ but it will be tough to send them to Ukraine, say former RAF figures

Sending Typhoons or the more modern F-35 Lightning fighter jets to Ukraine could present a security risk if they are downed, military experts say.

The F-35, made by the US, is a state-of-the-art warplane and, say experts, it would be a major setback if Russia was to get its hands on its technology by claiming the wreckage of an aircraft.

Although the Typhoon, a European plane that is extremely capable against Russian aircraft and land forces, is older, the loss of its technological secrets would still be problematic.

The UK is considering donating fighter jets to Ukraine after Volodymyr Zelensky urged the West to provide “wings for freedom”.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister had asked Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to investigate what jets could be spared to give Kyiv air superiority over Russia. However, No 10 later said the Government would not send fighter jets to Ukraine if it put the UK’s safety at risk.

There are concerns the UK simply does not have enough jets to hand over or that they could be dispatched in time to help Ukraine in the war. But, like the offer of Challenger tanks last month, its real power could be symbolism that encourages other countries to follow suit.

The softening of its stance on helping Kyiv with warplanes comes as the UK pledged to train Ukrainian air force pilots.

What jets does the UK have?

The RAF has two types of operational fighter jets.

The Typhoon FGR4 is a versatile fourth generation jet, with the RAF describing it as a “highly capable and extremely agile multi-role combat aircraft”. Its maximum speed is Mach 1.8 – an aircraft travelling at Mach 1 is travelling at the speed of sound – and it can fly at altitudes of up to 55,000ft. The Typhoon can carry a 27mm Mauser cannon, air-to-air missiles, precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.

It was produced in three tranches of increasing capability. The UK had 137 Typhoons in 2022 with 102 in service. The vast majority are from the later tranches. Around 30 of the first tranche, the early models, are due to be retired in 2025.

The F-35B Lightning, a fifth generation fighter jet, is capable of air-to-surface warfare, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and air-to-air missions simultaneously. With a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 and and a top altitude of 50,000ft, the F-35 usually carries two air-to-air missiles and two bombs. There is an optional 25mm gun pod in the American-made jet.

The UK had 26 F-35s in 2022, all of which are in service, according to a Ministry of Defence inventory.

How many jets could the UK give?

It is highly unlikely Britain is seriously considering handing over any of the F-35s – it is only just building up its own capability with them.

Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, who served in the RAF for 36 years, told i: “We’re never going to give those, never in a million years.

“We haven’t got enough, they’re brand new and they’re highly sophisticated and they are very complex. And America would never, never approve [donating them to Ukraine] because it’s an American aircraft, you can’t just sell it on to anybody without permission.”

He added that donating F-35s would lead to major security concerns if a model was downed in the war. “If you lost one, you’d be giving away secret data and information – that probably is step too far for the West. The next best thing is a Typhoon.”

Air Marshal Bagwell said the UK could give Kyiv its older Typhoon models because they are going to be decommissioned anyway. Any donations would require permission from Italy, Spain and Germany, which were involved in its development.

Air Marshal Bagwell, a fellow of the defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute and an RAF volunteer reservist pilot, said some could be “cannibalised” to produce spare parts, which would likely mean that Ukraine could have at least 20 operational jets.

Sending Typhoons to Ukraine is not risk-free for Britain, given “any intelligence that you can glean from somebody else’s aircraft or systems is always valuable so it will be a consideration no matter what aircraft is given,” he said.

“It’s not a bar but it’s a factor… I think we’re talking about operating this aircraft in Ukraine so they’re more likely to not fall into Russian hands.”

It typically takes an experienced military pilot about six months to fly a Typhoon under normal timetables but Air Marshal Bagwell said he believed Ukrainian pilots could learn in up to eight weeks given “time is of the essence”. Ground crew could be trained in about six months.

Straight out of flying school, learning to fly a Typhoon would take up to four years.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he thought the other nations would approve an export request but Germany has previously displayed hesitance in providing major weapons to Ukraine.

Dr Martin Smith, a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, suggested Britain could donate a squadron of 12 to 15 Typhoons.

“Concerns about possible escalation have faded over time, as more lethal Western equipment has been donated and Russia has avoided widening the conflict. Taking a lead in supporting Ukrainian requests, as with the decision to supply Challenger tanks, bolsters the UK’s position as a leading power in European security, when this is being questioned because of pressures on the defence budget and what some see as its marginalisation because of Brexit.”

But Air Commodore Dr Andrew Curtis, who retired from the RAF after 35 years in 2019, said it is highly unlikely the UK will provide jets to Ukraine given both types will need approval from other countries.

“Also, the RAF doesn’t have enough fast jets to meet its own commitments, so it will be loath to hand any over.

“Finally, it’s not just the jets. Pilots and ground crew will need to be trained, a spares package will need to be provided, weapons too will be needed. To put that level of support in place would take at least six months.”

Would Typhoons make a difference to the war?

A couple of dozen Typhoons alone will not make a difference to Ukraine’s capabilities in fighting Russia. Air Marshal Bagwell said there needed to be 100 to 200 jets so other countries would need to make up the rest, possibly with other models.

Air Marshal Bagwell added: “It’s going to embolden Ukraine… knowing that the West has got your back and is prepared to put in some of its most modern aircraft to defend you, it must be quite morale boosting. If you’re a Russian soldier or airman, you’re now thinking, ‘I’m about to face a really quite fearsome aircraft.’”

He added: “It’s going to change the dynamic.”

The Russian Embassy in London has warned the UK against supplying warplanes.

Britain, it said, would bear responsibility “for another twist of escalation and the ensuing military-political consequences for the European continent and the entire world”.

How effective is the Typhoon?

Air Marshal Bagwell has piloted a Typhoon and called it a “rocket ship”.

“I flew the F-18 for a number of years and I’ve flown the F-16. The Typhoon is a highly capable, highly maneuverable airplane. It goes high, it goes fast, it carries long range weapons, it holds its own. It’s top end.”

However, given the UK cannot donate them in large quantities, Mr Bagwell believes sending the F-16 Fighting Falcons to Ukraine would be a better idea. Around 4,600 models are spread out across 25 countries, with more than 3,000 in an operational state.

Mr Bagwell said: “I would say the Typhoon probably edges it [over the F-16] in a one-to-one fight, the Typhoon is a little bit better but not by much. The F-16 has an advantage, it’s smaller, it’s only got one engine so it [requires] less maintenance, it’s relatively simple to operate and multiple countries could gift it.”

The US has ruled out sending F-16s to Ukraine.

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