Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov says that he personally asked his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for 100 A-10 Warthog ground attack jets just weeks after Russia launched its all-out invasion in February. Reznikov says that Austin bluntly refused, saying the request was not only impossible to fulfill, but that the aircraft would be dangerously vulnerable to Russian air defenses.
Reznikov's comments were included in a detailed story that The Washington Post published earlier today, which is worth reading in full, about the scale, scope, and evolution of U.S. military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces over the last eight months or so. In that time, the U.S. government's position on what weapon systems and other equipment it is willing to send to Ukraine has significantly evolved, most recently with the decision to transfer a Patriot surface-to-air missile system battery, but American officials have remained steadfastly reticent about sending fixed-wing combat aircraft.
"They can deliver heavier bombs, and we could use them against [Russian] tank columns," Reznikov told The Washington Post about the reasoning for requesting the A-10s, which he said he made during a meeting with Austin in late March. In addition to its iconic 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger rotary-barrel cannon, the Warthog can carry a wide array of missiles, precision-guided and 'dumb' bombs, rockets, and other stores on any of its eight underwing pylons or on the three others underneath the central fuselage.
There had been a surge of public support in the United States, including from members of Congress, for sending Ukraine A-10s, among other things, in March after it emerged that a large Russian mechanized force had stalled out along a 40-mile stretch of road northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The column full of tanks and other heavy armor, as well as artillery and other support vehicles, appeared extremely vulnerable, prompting discussions about how it might be possible to help Ukrainian forces attack it.
“We had done our homework,” Reznikov added. The Ukrainian government had concluded that there were 100 surplus Warthogs available based on publicly available information, according to the story. The information in question could well be the official inventory of aircraft the U.S. military has in storage at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
As of November, there were 100 Warthogs – 49 A-10As and 51 A-10Cs – at the boneyard. However, many of those aircraft, especially the older A variants, are in a non-flyable state, having been heavily cannibalized for spare parts over the years. The U.S. Air Force has another 281 A-10Cs in service, assigned to active-duty squadrons and units in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. The Warthog has been out of production since 1984.
Austin shot down the Ukrainian request for Warthogs saying that it was “impossible” and “made no sense,” and that the jets would be a “squeaky target” for Russian air defense assets, according to Reznikov.
“This was understandable to me," Reznikov said. "It was reasonable. I said okay."
What followed was very public hand-wringing from officials in various countries about potential plans for sending Soviet-designed combat jets, none of which have come to pass. The United States and its allies and partners have since sent spare parts to the Ukrainian Air Force to support the combat jets it already has, support that has been instrumental in keeping the service flying after all these months of heavy fighting.
The U.S. military has also notably helped integrate the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) onto Ukraine's MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighter jets. This has given Ukraine's fighter jets a significant additional capability with which to engage Russian air defenses, as you can read more about here. This week the Pentagon announced new plans to transfer "precision aerial munitions" to the Ukrainian military, which reports have said will be bombs fitted with GPS-assisted Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kits.
It's unclear whether Reznikov or other Ukrainian officials have revisited the A-10 request since March. In July, responding to a question at the annual Aspen Security Forum, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Frank Kendall suggested that sending Warthogs to Ukraine wasn't off the table, before walking back those comments in September.
In July, after Kendall's initial comments, Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Reznikov, had also said that the Ukrainian Air Force needed higher performance and more multi-role combat jets, such as U.S.-made F-16 Viper fighters, rather than any A-10s. He explicitly said that Warthogs "will not close our sky, they will not stop bombers and missiles" and "will be a target for Russian jet fighters and anti-aircraft defense."
Ukrainian pilots subsequently echoed these sentiments in response to separate reports about a potential transfer of MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones. Today's Washington Post story says U.S. officials have also denied a formal Ukrainian request for MQ-1Cs.
There was a report in August that a member of Ukraine's armed forces had set up an A-10 simulator training center using commercially available computers, software, and peripherals, including virtual reality headsets. However, it was not clear at the time how official that enterprise, modeled on a low-cost training initiative that A-10 pilots with the U.S. Air Force's 355th Training Squadron, which The War Zone had previously reported on, is or was. There certainly were no indications then that the matter of Warthogs for the Ukrainian Air Force was being actively discussed.
All told, it appears that the U.S. government's long-standing position against sending Western fixed-wing combat jets to Ukraine remains unchanged, at least for the time being. On multiple occasions in the past, American officials have argued that such transfers would present serious risks of escalating direct tensions between Washington and Moscow and would significant training, and would impose sustainment hurdles for the Ukrainian military that outweigh any potential benefits.
Other issues, including the potential for such aircraft to conduct strikes deep inside Russia, are likely factors, as well. President Joe Biden's administration has been particularly reticent to be seen as enabling any such strikes for fear of escalating broader friction with Moscow.
On top of all this, the U.S. Air Force is actively pushing for cuts to the A-10 fleet, as part of a broader plan to finally retire the type completely within five years, arguing that the aging jets are not suitable for higher-end conventional fights like the kind going on in Ukraine right now. Congress is now acquiescing to these plans after decades of blocking them.
It remains to be seen whether forthcoming A-10 divestments prompt new discussions about transferring those aircraft to Ukraine, or anyone else. While it's true that the Warthog has significant vulnerabilities to modern air defenses, especially without a large tactical package to protect them, they would offer a more advanced survivable alternative to the Soviet-era Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack jets that the Ukrainian Air Force is flying now. Depending on what munitions the A-10s might come along with, they could also be used as stand-off strike platforms, helping to keep them away from threats.
Regardless, there is a consensus building that the current conflict in Ukraine will ultimately lead the country's air force to transition away from its Soviet-era combat jets to more modern Western types, and that this process should start sooner rather than later. The War Zone has explored the reasoning behind this and the potential benefits of getting things moving now in detail in the past.
From Reznikov's interview with The Washington Post, and other comments from U.S. and Ukrainian officials since March, the inclusion of A-10 Warthogs in those plans for a revamped Ukrainian Air Force seems increasingly less likely.
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