Poland's Plan to Give US its Fleet of MiG Fighter Jets for Ukraine Blindsides American Officials

Two Polish Air Force Russian made Mig 29's.
Two Polish Air Force Russian made Mig 29's fly above and below two Polish Air Force U.S. made F-16 fighter jets during the Air Show in Radom, Poland, on Aug. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Tuesday that the country plans to deliver all of its Soviet-era fighter jets to a U.S. Air Force base in Germany to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia, but it appears the U.S. was not aware of the pending announcement.

"The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Government, are ready to deploy -- immediately and free of charge -- all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America," Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press release.

The press release surprised many State Department and military officials who have been working feverishly to get more arms to Ukrainian fighters attempting to ward off the Russian invasion.

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How those planes would get to Ukrainian pilots is unclear.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and told lawmakers she hadn't heard about the offer while driving up to Capitol Hill. She added, "I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles."

Additionally, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that "there were some logistical questions -- important ones -- that were still under discussion about where those planes would take off from and land."

Later Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in an emailed statement that the U.S. is "now in contact with the Polish government following the statement issued today," adding that it's up to that country to get the jets into Ukraine's hands.

"It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it," he said. "We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland's proposal is a tenable one."

Poland's announcement comes amid a tense week of back-and-forth conversations between the U.S. and European allies as they figure out how best to deliver air support to Ukraine, even as Russia warns that bringing the jets to Ukraine would escalate tensions and be considered provocation.

    Poland has 27 one- and two-seat MiG-29 fighter jets, according to Jane's World Air Forces. They would significantly bolster Ukraine's airpower, and many of the country's pilots are already trained to fly the Soviet-era jet, while they would have to learn a new American flight system.

    In return for supplying the U.S. the MiG-29s, Poland asked for U.S. fighter jets of a similar capability in return -- which would likely mean the F-16 Fighting Falcons, a system the country already is trained on.

    "Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced. "The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies -- owners of MIG-29 jets -- to act in the same vein."

    Despite the surprised reaction from American officials, there had been discussion in recent days of a plan in the vein of what Poland announced. Kirby said as recently as Monday that those conversations were ongoing.

    "There was discussion about if a nation such as Poland were to do this, would there be a capacity for the United States to backfill those aircraft with American-made aircraft?" Kirby said. "No decisions have been made. Certainly, none that we're aware of by Poland."

    Previously, Poland had been vocally opposed to supplying jets to the Ukraine effort.

    Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, European Union security chief Josep Borrell said that Eastern European countries that still fly Russian fighter planes had agreed to rapidly transfer the jets to Ukrainian pilots.

    But the Bulgarian and Slovakian governments quickly said they would not hand over their fighters, and Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that his country was "not going to send any jets to the Ukrainian airspace," adding "that would open a military interference in the Ukrainian conflict."

    Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and dean of the nonprofit Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power, told Military.com that he was at the Pentagon all day Tuesday and hadn't caught wind of Poland's proposed deal.

    He added that Poland's announcement Tuesday lacked a fair amount of tact and didn't appear to be well thought out.

    "I'm surprised that Poland would give the United States the planes instead of having Ukrainian pilots come over the border and fly them in," Deptula said. "It's not the best way to do business."

    The main obstacle in getting airpower to Ukraine is figuring out which jets would be the easiest to transfer and would require the least amount of training, equipment and maintenance crews so they could deploy against the Russians.

    Amid the many options being floated, some lawmakers and policy experts have even suggested bringing out the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a jet the U.S. Air Force wants to retire in favor of more resources for the F-35A Lightning II.

    Last week, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., tweeted a statement asking President Joe Biden to "consider transferring additional military systems to Ukraine such as A-10 aircraft to counter Putin's armored assault."

    The idea of transferring the A-10s has not been a subject of discussion at the Pentagon. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters last week at the Air Force Association's Conference in Orlando that the idea was not on the table.

    "I'm not aware of any current plan or even a discussion of a current plan to field or provide A-10s to the Ukrainians," Kendall said.

    -- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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