‘Little increased capabilities at high risk’: Pentagon says US does not support transferring Polish fighter jets to Ukraine

Spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon (AP)
Spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon (AP)

A Polish plan to give Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine by leaving them at a US base in Germany would provide “little increased capabilities” to Ukrainian forces and would present a “high risk” to Nato by provoking Russia, Defence Department spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday

On Tuesday, the Polish government unveiled a proposal to send the fighters — which Ukrainian pilots are currently trained to fly — to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, leaving them in the custody of the United States until Ukraine could send pilots to retrieve them or they could otherwise be brought into Ukraine.

Mr Kirby shot down the plane plan later that day in a statement which said the prospect of any fighter leaving a Nato base for airspace contested by Ukraine and Russia raised “serious concerns” for the alliance, and called the proposal “not tenable”.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky blasted the decision in a video on Wednesday, calling the US concerns “a technical issue” that should be solved “immediately”.

“Listen: we have a war! We do not have time for all these signals. This is not ping pong! This is about human lives! We ask once again: solve it faster. Do not shift the responsibility, send us planes,” he said.

Speaking at the Pentagon’s daily press briefing, Mr Kirby further explained the Defence Department’s reasons for objecting to Poland’s plan.

To start, he said Ukrainian forces are currently making good use of anti-armour and air defence systems provided by the US and other countries, calling provision of those systems “the best way to support Ukrainian defence”.

“We, along with other nations, continue to send them these weapons, and we know that they are being used with great effect. The slowed Russian advance in the north, and the contested airspace over Ukraine is evidence alone of that,” he said.

Mr Kirby also said Ukraine currently has “several squadrons” of the Soviet-made jets in “fully mission-capable” status.

“We assess that adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities,” he said, adding that the gains from such a transfer are believed to be “low” by US officials.

He added that the US intelligence community “has assessed” that such a transfer “may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with Nato”.

“Polish generosity is clearly on display for the whole world to see,” he said. “But at this time, we believe that provision of additional fighter aircraft provides little increased capabilities at high risk.”

However, the Pentagon spokesperson did not rule out the possibility that the transfer of aircraft might take place outside the auspices of the United States or Nato, telling reporters the Pentagon’s objection stemmed from the fact that Poland’s proposal would have involved placing the jets into US custody.

“Sovereign nations unilaterally are deciding to make decisions about providing security assistance to Ukraine, and they have that right to do that, and it's not our place to speak for them or what they may want to do,” he said. “We just felt it was important — since this proposal involved the transfer to US custody — to lay out our concerns about that, and that's what we've done here”.