Garvan Walshe is a former National and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
New figures from the Kiel Security institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker show the UK falling behind in its support for Ukraine.
Though it took time for 26 EU members to reach full agreement (and devise plans to circumvent Hungary’s veto), it and its members have now committed €52 billion (£45 billion) to Ukraine, compared to the UK’s £6 billion (and the US’s $48 billion). As a share of GDP, the EU’s support will exceed the UK’s by a fifth.
Though the UK is a vital military supporter (three fifths of British support is military aid, compared to half in the United States and one fifth across the EU), this has tailed off since the summer. The UK risks squandering the goodwill and influence it has built up by failing to stay the course.
The horrendous fiscal environment, caused by Liz Truss’s unforced error mini-budget, must take a good deal of the blame. With public finances extremely tight, a wave of strikes expected and financial markets jittery, the government has limited room for manoeuvre.
But there’s still an area in which the UK’s nimbleness can make a difference: helping Ukraine to fight – in Winston Churchill’s words “with growing strength in the air”. After the liberation of Kherson, it has become the centre of gravity in the war.
Through military defence of genius, Ukraine has been able to deny Russia air superiority over Ukraine, limiting the Russian air force to close air support of ground troops, defence against Ukrainian air attacks, and operating as a missile-launching platform. Russia only risked using heavy bombers to help flatten Mariupol, after its air defences had been overwhelmed.
The Russian military – which as this magisterial report from RUSI makes clear is not quite as boneheaded as some of its early blunders made it appear – has been able to adapt since then.
The short-term aim is the standard Russian one: force the enemy to expend its efforts protecting its own civilian population instead of fighting you. The extreme cold of Ukraine’s winter (subzero temperatures through last March) would force Ukraine to evacuate such major cities as Kharkhiv and Kyiv if it cannot keep the lights on and district heating systems working.
Russia’s longer-term objective is to suppress Ukraine’s economy long enough for the West to tire of supporting Ukraine: service sector economic activity is tough without reliable electricity; industrial revival is close to impossible.
In the very short-term, this is a battle of the stockpiles. Russia’s stock of missiles versus Ukraine’s stockpile of air defence missiles and spare parts to repair infrastructure. The West has been helping almost as much as it can. The UK sent a thousand anti-air missiles in November. Germany has even sent air defence systems straight off the assembly line that it hasn’t given to its own army yet, but our production lines aren’t ready for high-intensity war, and will take some time to be rebuilt. Missiles will be scarce until they are.
Yet Ukraine needs to protect itself from Russian aerial attacks, which is best done by being able to threaten the Russian aircraft, ships and ground systems that launch them. The way to do this is for Ukraine to expand its fair force. Modern fighter jets would give it that capability, allowing it to threaten Russian jets (which currently outrange the Ukrainian ones) and target Russian air defence systems, ships, planes and missile launchers.
Introducing an air force, which depends on maintenance crews, fuel supplies and runways, into territory under aerial attack is difficult. Most Western doctrine is predicated on achieving air superiority over some territory first, by flying sorties from airbases or carriers nearby, and this has affected aircraft design.
Sweden’s neutrality forced it to plan differently. Its defence plans were formulated to counter a strong Russian attack capable of overwhelming them, and it developed aircraft to match. The Gripen fighter is designed to be maintained by small crews, features easily replaceable parts, and, crucially, can land and take off on roads, not only airstrips (Harriers would be even better, but they’ve been discontinued). Ukraine has a surplus of fighter pilots who could be quickly retrained to fly Gripens, along with maintenance crews.
Though the United States is still nervous about giving Ukraine advanced jets, or long-range munitions for the HIMARS rocket launchers, apparently worried Ukraine would use them to bring the war to Russia, a small force of two or three Gripen squadrons would immeasurably increase Ukraine’s air capability without giving it sufficient firepower to launch major attacks on Russia itself.
Russian aircraft could be hit flying in Russian airspace, and Russian airbases could be targeted too – but Ukraine already has some ability to do this on its own. The Gripens’ advanced radars and missiles would deter Russian commanders who have already been proven wary of losing airframes.
One piece of the puzzle remains: where to get them. Only Sweden maintains large numbers of Gripens (around 100, enough for six squadrons), with 60 more advanced versions on order. Sweden, understandably enough, needs them for its own defence. If any were sent to Ukraine a defensive gap would need to be filled.
The UK, which has 198 Typhoons, should extend its security agreement with Sweden and step in to fill any “Gripen gap”, just as it sent tanks to Poland to allow Poland to send its Soviet-era T72s to Ukraine.
This autumn, Russia has escalated this conflict by taking its war to Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. We should help Ukraine defend its skies in response.