The challenges of transferring military aircraft
Q & A with Dr. Dean Winslow and Ben Lambeth
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with the West to send fighter jets to help against Russian aggression but when Poland offered to transfer Soviet-era MiG-29s, the Pentagon called the transfer untenable.
To learn more about fighter jets and the people who fly and maintain them, we spoke to CISAC senior fellow Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine and former Air Force colonel who has 1150 military flying hours including 431 combat hours and 263 combat sorties and extensive operational experience in fighter, tactical airlift, and combat rescue missions.
Winslow reached out to his former colleague, Ben Lambeth, a long-time specialist in international security affairs and air warfare with the RAND Corporation, who has extensive flight experience in more than 40 different combat aircraft types, including Eastern bloc aircraft. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Q: What did you make of this conversation between Ukraine, Poland and the United States?
Ben Lambeth: The Ukrainian AF has more than a couple dozen each of single-seat and combat-configured MiG-29s and Su-27s and presumably an equivalent or even larger-sized contingent of pilots trained to fly them. What is their current state of play?
Also, why are the Ukrainians requesting Polish MiG-29s to begin with? Has much of the existing Ukrainian fighter force been destroyed on the ground by Russian air and cruise-missile strikes?
Q: How are MiG-29s used?
Dean Winslow: The primary mission is as an air superiority fighter, like our F 15 Eagle, so it's an air-to-air fighter.
Q: Can pilots who have trained in similar aircraft fly these jets?
Lambeth: At bottom, fighter pilots are fighter pilots the world over, and when given a problem, they will figure it out. If the Ukrainian AF is urgently asking for Polish MiG-29s, they must have a good reason for it and must believe that they will make a difference.
Winslow: It would not be too much of a stretch for a pilot, let's say who's already an experienced and qualified in a MiG 29 Ukrainian aircraft to fly a Polish aircraft. As little as a couple of days of “differences training” between aircraft types (similar to what commercial airline pilots undergo routinely when transitioning from an earlier to a later model of a Boeing 737), would likely be adequate for an experienced MiG 29 pilot. Having either simulators or even low-tech procedures trainers would make such a transition even easier.
Lambeth: A mission-ready Su-27 pilot could probably get barely combat-qualified for air-to-air in a MiG-29 with a minimum of cross-training needed to master the involved procedures and switchology. Things like just starting the jet, getting the radar up, and mastering all the associated checklist procedures. This couldn't happen in just an hour or two, but possibly in a day or two.
Winslow: What separated the really, really good fighter pilots from people like me, who, you know, I'm just a reasonably competent civilian pilot, is the fact that a good fighter pilot has the amazing ability to not only maneuver the aircraft, but to also operate these incredibly complex weapons systems while flying at near supersonic speeds and experiencing high G forces.
I'm pretty sure that they have some type of what's called a pulse Doppler fire control radar system in their aircraft. And the software can be more or less sophisticated. I still can't talk about all of the features that we had in our Eagles, but I'm sure now they're different because the last time I was in a F-15 was 26 years ago. But even then, the software that supported the radar was very sophisticated. And learning how to operate the fire control radar and all the different modes that you would need to track and target multiple aircraft simultaneously is challenging. In addition, these aircraft have sophisticated threat warning systems for detection and tracking of surface to air and air to air threats.
Q: How difficult is it to maintain the aircraft?
Winslow: I hate to use the word supply chain. People are now using that term a lot in the civilian world too—but the challenge of maintaining adequate supplies of spare parts that you would need to maintain that aircraft is formidable.
While these are modern aircraft, they still are incredibly maintenance intensive. I think with the F-4 Phantom that we figured that usually it was something like for every hour the aircraft flew, it was as much as 12 to 15 man/woman hours to keep them mission ready.
(Dean Winslow with Maj Bob Coffman with F-15B after flying NATO mission, RAF Lossiemouth (Scotland), 1990.)