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Richard Shimooka: The cost of sending fighter jets to Ukraine is not worth the risk

Commentary

Ukraine’s minister of defence claimed in the last few weeks that he expects NATO allies will provide fighter aircraft “as soon as possible.” Unlike the Leopard 2 tanks debate, however, where the supporters of Ukraine were largely united in their support (with the brief exception of Germany until its recent reversal), the debate over fighter aircraft has been much more mixed. Most of Ukraine’s key backers, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom are fairly dismissive of the idea in the short term.

To start, the Ukrainian air force has been an important part of the country’s remarkable defence of its territory over the past year—improving its capabilities should be a priority for the Ukrainian government and its backers not just now but also after the war concludes. The reticence behind the Western governments’ decision is a combination of several major factors: the challenges of such a transition, its cost, and its ultimate efficacy.

Fighter aircraft are extremely complex capabilities, among the most difficult to operate and sustain for a modern military. A typical NATO training system requires roughly 18 months of fairly intensive training to produce a combat-ready fighter pilot, albeit with a very basic level of ability. A squadron requires a mix of a few highly experienced veterans with over a decade of experience that can effectively employ new recruits. While there might be a tendency to believe that Ukrainian pilots, many of whom are year-long combat veterans, would easily adapt to new aircraft and play this role, this is not the case.

A key part of the challenge is that NATO and other European fighters operate significantly differently from their former Soviet counterparts. The pilot-vehicle interface is a critical component for any training regime, as pilots often need to make split-second decisions based on muscle memory in order to be effective; as such, unlearning existing habits and relearning new ones is a critical part of an effective transition. Overall, Western aircraft controls operate under different logics and operations—for example, Ukrainian aircraft use Cyrillic and metric symbology and controls. 

Existing Ukrainian Air Force pilots would need significant retraining to just achieve a basic level of proficiency, much less one that would allow them to take advantage of NATO fighters’ capabilities. Thus far, the United States and the United Kingdom have only agreed to provide basic flight training to Ukrainian pilots, not the year-long advanced fighter and conversion training required to transition pilots to a specific aircraft type.

While pilots garner much of the popular focus, in reality, the true bottleneck for a transition is the sea of nameless maintenance technicians. Their tireless efforts are critical to keeping any aircraft operating. Each generic Western fighter, like the F-16 or CF-18, requires eight to 10 frontline maintainers to keep an aircraft operating successfully around the clock. They are essential for various subsystems, including avionics, radars, electronic countermeasures, structures, engines, and various weapon types. In total, a fully staffed NATO squadron of 18 aircraft requires 20 or so pilots, and approximately 300 maintainers and other staff members.

Moreover, these individuals are almost certainly at a high premium within the Ukrainian armed forces, considering the wide variety of Western armoured vehicles they currently employ in the field. There simply isn’t a reserve of underemployed technicians sitting idly by waiting for work. This means a large number would need to be trained afresh, which in some cases could be a years-long process.

Part of the issue is that Ukraine is at war, which complicates any assistance. Traditional models of transitioning an airforce to a Western type are not available. Typically, contractor support is deeply embedded in new users of Western fighters in order to build up the necessary expertise until it is no longer necessary. However, this approach is politically and militarily problematic when the entire country is in the midst of fighting a war.

Thus, most firms would be extremely reticent in providing such support in the country. An alternative is to operate a two-level model, with the frontline squadron work undertaken at airbases in Ukraine and more complex work provided inside NATO countries. This too would be politically problematic, as these new fighters would be using bases in NATO countries as sanctuaries of sorts. While many Ukrainian capabilities utilize this two-level model, such as armoured vehicles, it would be much more visible and problematic having these aircraft crossing regularly back and forth for maintenance work. 

While a common refrain is that wartime necessity and expediency should trump safety, this is a problematic argument due to the resources required to operate a NATO standard fighter fleet. Each fighter, even a type that has been declared surplus, is costly to operate, and older airframes require more work to keep flying than new ones. This would add to the significant maintenance burden faced by Ukrainian forces. The resources required to sustain a single fighter could support multiple armoured vehicles, yet there is no guarantee that the former can be a decisive instrument. 

For Ukraine to win, it must be efficient with the resources it has and find avenues to make highly advantageous exchanges. That does not mean replicating the entire panoply Western capabilities in miniature, no matter the cost. Russia still possesses a highly potent air defence system that has denied their airspace to Ukrainian combat aircraft—even NATO Air Forces would face significant difficulty overcoming their capabilities. A Ukrainian Air force operating older Western aircraft with hastily trained personnel will be at an even greater disadvantage.

Instead, Ukraine has already adapted to this reality, much along the lines of cutting-edge U.S. and NATO doctrine. Since the promulgation of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ multi-domain battle concept in 2017, Western militaries have increasingly moved towards achieving airpower’s battlefield effects using non-traditional means. As air superiority could not be assured against new Chinese and Russian air defence capabilities, the United States sought alternative approaches, like long-range artillery and surface-to-surface missiles to conduct strikes. 

Ukraine already illustrates this approach. With the use of a persistent battlefield intelligence collection system, provided by Western or Ukrainian capabilities, it has effectively employed those very same long-range strike capabilities, most notably the HIMARS rocket system, to achieve similar effects to what air superiority would provide. A better approach would be to reinforce these capabilities, including the provision of the much-longer range ATACMS system. 

In addition, Ukraine’s allies should try to improve the capability and serviceability of its current fighter fleet for the immediate future. Of particular note is the incorporation of a number of specialized NATO systems into the Ukrainian fighter fleet, like the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile. Integrating other precision-guided, stand-off weapons, such as the Small Diameter Bomb, Standoff Land Attack Missile, or Joint Stand-off Weapon, would be immensely helpful in improving their existing aircraft’s ability to play a more substantial role in the conflict, without creating a capability gap that a transition would entail

Airpower is a critical component of any modern war, and Ukraine has illustrated that. However, its application must be carefully calibrated to the resources and opportunities available. Undoubtedly the Ukrainian military will eventually transition to NATO standard fighters, much like other former Warsaw Pact countries have. Kyiv’s effort may well be aimed at that objective, preparing its air force for what comes after the immediate war with Russia. Nevertheless, the West should focus on tangible improvements that will improve its current fighting capability, and then start a transition after the conflict is over. The risk of attempting such a transition at present is far too high and could have deleterious consequences for its ability to succeed against Russia.

Malcolm Jolley: Is fine wine drinking a dying art?

Commentary

Last Sunday my wife took me to see Pressure at the Royal Alexandria Theatre. The play, by David Haig, is about forecasting the weather for D-Day and was brought over after a run in Edinburgh with its original cast. I enjoyed both the performance and the theatregoing, which was itself a post-pandemic novelty.

The Royal Alex was built in 1907, when people were smaller and before the Spanish Flu. The seating is intimate, and one can keenly hear every cough and candy wrapper crinkle from the audience members. It felt odd to be in close contact, again after the pandemic, with 1,200 or so of my fellow human beings.

It also made me feel kind of young. At 50, if there was a bell curve chart where x was the age of the audience member and y the number of them of that age, I would have been well to the left of the top of the bell curve. Apparently, live theatre is not, these days, the pursuit of the young.

Looking at the audience at intermission I was reminded of a recent piece by the New York Times wine columnist, Isaac Asimov. It was given the headline “The American Wine Industry Has an Old People Problem”, and covered the latest edition of an annual report from a vice president of the Silicon Valley Bank, Rob McMillan. The report is entitled “The State of the U.S. Wine Industry”, and apparently wine is not, these days, the pursuit of the young.

The problem, according to McMillan, and reported by Asimov, is that young people are not drinking cheap wine, the kinds of wine that cost under $US 15 (roughly $CAD 20) that the industry considers the gateway wines to a lifetime of oenophilia. Conversely, the report found that the biggest area of consumer growth was among 70 to 80-year-olds.

The California-based wine writer Alder Yarrow took up the topic of the report with a post on his website, Vinography, with a long read piece illustrated with pictures of elderly zombies drinking wine and entitled “The Wine Industry is Headed for Self-Inflicted Decrepitude”. Citing McMillan, Yarrow complains of wine trade indifference to young consumers, who increasingly prefer ready-to-drink beverages like hard seltzers. He concludes, “If it doesn’t wake up and smell which way the wind is blowing, the American Wine Industry is soon going to get the customers it deserves.”

The report, and the reporting on the report, are about American wine sales to American consumers, but they track in my house. My 19-year-old son and his friends are happy to drink our (more than $20 a bottle) wines at the dinner table when home from university. But if they come over to hang out for an evening, or buy supplies to go to a party, I see a lot of cans of White Claw and the like, or beer.

At the theatre I wondered if fine wine was going the way of the performing arts. Would it lose the interest of young people and become the pastime of the elderly? Would it lose its market viability? Would drinking fine wines be akin to going to the opera and ballet? Would wine only exist at the pleasure of wealthy patrons and government subsidies? Would there be a Canada Council of Sommeliers to decide which wines would make it onto restaurant lists?

Every field has its contrarians, and one of the better and more thoughtful ones in the American wine world is journalist and author Jason Wilson, who publishes the newsletter Every Day Drinking. In a piece, nominally about pairing Chardonnay with Indonesian food, Wilson pushes back on  the conventional reception of the report:

All of this overheated talk is somewhat ‘sky is falling.’ For U.S. wine consumers, there’s essentially a line in the sand: 15 bucks. Above that is what the industry calls ‘premium wines,’ and those sales are relatively robust. Below that price point is a vast ocean of American mass-market wines—and sales of these lousy wines are in decline. That’s apparently the worry. But why? Why is the industry so worried about the decline of garbage wines? I mean, boohoo, right?

As it turns out, also in the report is the news that sales of wines over $US 15 are doing fine, among all age groups. This also tracks in my house: when my son came back for a visit from Montreal recently, he brought us a bottle of premium-priced natural wine.

It also tracks with me. There are a lot of wines priced under $CAD 20 that I might pass on in favour of a White Claw.There are, of course, also lots of wines under $20 that are delicious, rewarding, and good bargains, but you have to look a little bit harder to find them. There are also more than a few over $20, for that matter. Mass-produced, industrial wines at any price often have cloying amounts of sugar, all manner of additives (which aren’t listed on the label), and high percentages of alcohol by volume.

I bet that a majority of people under 30 years old who drink wine had parents who drank wine. I’m Generation X, born in the ’70s, and I can remember vaguely when my Silent Generation parents, born in the ’40s, began to shift from cocktails and beer to wine in the 1980s.

For people my age, the wine revolution, which really took off in the ’90s, is like the internet: though it’s shaped us, we can remember what was like before it came along. And we had to acquire the skills to master it as it evolved.

People in their 20s and 30s were born into the thick of the explosion of popular interest in wine, and may well have acquired some relatively sophisticated tastes in the family dining room before entering the consumer fray.

The kids are alright. More than that, they seem to know what they’re doing better than any generation that came before. Makers, sellers, and consumers of well-made wine need not worry. We’ll have much to toast at any age.