Ukraine’s desire for additional combat air assets is soberingly real. After 11 months of war, neither Ukraine nor Russia has secured any semblance of air superiority. As the West struggles to figure out how to resource Ukraine’s requirement for air power, some are suggesting a transfer of aircraft, such as F-16 Falcons, F-15E Eagles, JAS-39 Gripens or others.
These suggestions, unfortunately, share a common suite of problems: aircraft availability, long lead training programs, and substantial funding. As efforts to address these challenges percolate, a small group is presenting a unique option. While unprecedented and bold, the idea of contracting a private air force to Ukraine is gaining traction.
Could it overcome these three obstacles?
Reports regarding Ukraine’s Air Force suggest they have pilots, but are resource limited on aircraft. Hence, the simple solution is to find cockpits and send them. Regrettably, that is far easier said than done. F-16s, as an example, are in short supply. In 2018, Slovakia announced a contract to buy the F-16. They will receive their first aircraft in 2024, if it’s not delayed again. Granted Slovakia is not at war, and a shorter timeline is likely for Ukraine. That said, what the U.S. sees as expedited, Ukraine will perceive as painfully slow. Much like the F-16, the other aircraft being considered also are not in plentiful supply.
The second problem with sending Ukraine fighter aircraft is training. Modern aircraft are extremely advanced, ridiculously fast, expensive and face far more sophisticated threats in combat. Western air forces have well-structured training syllabi for their aircraft and in the case of fighter aircraft, most range from nine to 12 months. Again, this could likely be expedited, but there is substantial risk in clipping training programs for pilots that are going directly into combat.
The third challenge is cost. While the front-end procurement cost is massive, there is also a recurring cost per flight hour. Introducing a small, new fleet of aircraft into a nation with limited maintenance and logistics support is a recipe for massive operational costs. A quick search on the internet reveals operating costs for myriad military aircraft. At the lower end is a cost of $20k an hour. For a top end, a recent article out of Austria suggested their Eurofighters cost 100k euros per hour to fly.
Based on this, a nation at war could quickly bleed itself of wealth and treasure. Arguably, friendly nations would work to help Ukraine keep operational costs down, but that effort would only go so far, and someone would be left holding a bill of an unknown size. Exacerbating these challenges is that they are independent of each other. A solution addressing one issue might easily worsen another.
Recent developments crafting opportunities
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) awarded a substantial contract to outsource it’s aggressor air training squadrons. Seven companies, Ravn (formerly Air USA), Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), Blue Air Training, Coastal Defense, Draken International, Tactical Air Support and Top Aces, were identified. These companies purchased varying fleets of aircraft, hired pilots and maintainers, as well as other support functions.
Today, these companies provide exceptional training for U.S. military pilots, successfully saving DoD funds. Interestingly, a DoD cost savings effort has created a secondary effect. These U.S. companies, as part of the military industrial complex, possess substantial air power beyond merely training. Some of the leadership within these companies are already contemplating if (and how) they could meet Ukraine’s requirement for air power.
The U.S. government has a long-normalized process for facilitating foreign transfer of U.S. commercial industry military capability. Since 2002, the U.S. has sold or given military hardware, human-ware, and other capabilities to 167 nations according to the CATO Institute. In most cases, defense articles are transferred with the gaining nation taking possession. While perhaps unprecedented, it’s possible the U.S. government could approve a lease of sorts to Ukraine, providing a full-up combat air ability, including aircraft, aircrew, maintainers and other support functions.
Such a lease option addresses or mitigates the aforementioned three challenges. The companies under lease would provide their own aircraft, eliminating the need to “find” jets. Second, the company would provide its own qualified aircrew (and well qualified at that). There’d be no training requirement. Lastly, the cost is manageable, and set by contract. There would be no massive front-end funding to pay for aircraft, and given their privatized nature, these companies have crafted efficiencies to keep operational costs manageable.
Along with being a viable option, legislative and policy vehicles exist to enable the concept. Through the Foreign Military Sales/Foreign Military Funding (FMS/FMF) structures, Ukraine could submit a “Letter of Request” asking for a full airpower capability from one of the seven companies. The notion is not as implausible as some perceive.
According to a pilot from one of the seven companies, talks about this very concept began a while ago on Capitol Hill. Interestingly, some of those discussions have progressed to the point of pricing. That pilot, who for security reasons must remain unidentified, said his CEO has surfaced the idea of deploying roughly a squadron of capability within 60-90 days at a cost that is around $30k per flight hour – a reasonable operating cost for fighter employment.
While the seven companies house different fleets, two companies stand out. Top Aces or Draken have built fleets that could provide a substantial capability given their recent procurement of F-16 Falcons. Top Aces recently won a $175 million defense contract to provide F-16 aggressor training to the U.S. Air Force after procuring 29 ex-Israeli F-16s. Similarly, Draken’s former CEO, Joe Ford, announced the purchase of 12 ex-Norwegian F-16s, which his company also intends to employ for aggressor training to the U.S. Defense Department. The F-16 is arguably the most advanced aircraft in a private fleet. It is also an aircraft with strong logistics support and a substantial pool of talent, globally.
Does the U.S. Government have a say?
Absolutely, and more than one. The Defense Department, State Department, Congress, and the Executive Branch all own a piece of the process for transferring military articles, technology, or services under the current FMS/FMF program. There are frequent cases when the U.S. government denies foreign transfer requests from defense industries like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Bell, and others. The rationale for denials spans technology transfer concerns, diplomatic reasons and other issues.
A leased air force to Ukraine, however, is likely to be an attractive option to many in D.C. The concept allows for a rapid, well trained and cost effective air force to confront Russia in the skies over Ukraine. More importantly, it provides a “degree of separation” from direct U.S. military involvement and is steps shorter than the U.S. entering the war.
While some nations may challenge the concept, the U.S. has plenty of historic FMS examples where nations employed FMS procured defense articles in a manner counter to U.S. desires. The U.S. has already provided a substantial amount of defense articles to Ukraine. Diplomatically, the U.S. could draw parallels to Ukraine’s employment of Raytheon built Javelin anti-tank missiles to tasking and directing contracted F-16s over its skies. In the real world, one could argue a difference, but the real world and the diplomatic world are often different realms.
Legal combatants’ dilemma
Disclaimer up front: I am not an international lawyer, nor do I ever wish to become one. In very general terms, international humanitarian law states combatants are protected under two categories: privileged and unprivileged. Traditional military personnel are privileged, affording them prisoner of war status if captured. Unprivileged personnel, when captured, become criminal prisoners and subject to civilian law in that nation. Private contracted pilots would likely be deemed unprivileged.
What is worth pointing out, however, is that a substantial number of other nations have leveraged unprivileged fighters. According to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), there are over 150 Private Military Companies (PMCs) or Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) globally with some U.S. companies on the list. To date, the U.S. government has spoken out against PMCs in Ukraine. Additionally, it has advised U.S. citizens to not join the fight but has taken no action beyond a statement.
Ukraine, however, is not the only conflict. Significant reports suggest U.S. companies have provided PMC/PMSC services in Somalia, undertaking efforts to secure shipping lanes in the area from Somali pirates and privateers. Further blurring the lines, some nations view FMS manpower contracts in combat zones as PMCs or unprivileged fighters. Reports suggest over 350 U.S. defense contractors were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with professions ranging from truck driver to fireman and others. Defining such professions as PCMs only further conflates combatants from non-combatant support personnel.
Aside from the diplomatic mental churning on quantifying combatants as privileged or unprivileged, the pressing issue is how to afford leased pilots legal protections. Should one be shot down and captured, how can the U.S. ensure their safety? More broadly, there are reported to be 20,000 non-traditional fighters in Ukraine. Many of these have “joined” either the Russian or Ukrainian militaries, but the legality of that move is suspect. PMCs, PMSCs, unprivileged, freedom fighters, foreign fighters, mercenaries… whatever the title, this issue is far greater than the handful of pilots which would be sent under a leased air force.
Mercenaries, pirates and…?
To a degree, the term “mercenary” is not accurate to define a contracted combatant pilot. In nearly all cases, mercenary is used to define fighting in the land domain. By definition, a mercenary is “a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army.” Similarly, the terms “pirate” or “privateer” are reserved for non-sailor combatants at sea. Per definition, a pirate or privateer is “a private individual crewed onto an armed ship.”
Defining combatants in the air domain has largely remained unnamed, but it is far from a new concept. In World War I, dozens of private American pilots flew for the French military in the famed Lafayette Escadrille. Perhaps it has come time to name such an entity and craft an international definition which could be widely recognized yet ambiguous enough to escape consensus, like other titles in this realm. If the international community is accepting suggestions, I gently solicit “avenger” or another title leveraged of the Lafayette Escadrille heritage.
Beyond grappling with naming private air domain combatants, another question arises. Warfighting domains in the past decade have expanded to include cyber, space and arguably the electromagnetic spectrum. Will titles for private combatants also require crafting? Given the secrecy surrounding these domains, are there already private combatants operating clandestinely? All fair questions and ones for civilian and military leaders to contend with soon.
The U.S. and/or the West could stick to established FMS protocols, selling fighter aircraft to Ukraine. Even though this option could take years, incur excessive costs, and provide marginal capability, it remains attractive to many in D.C. given it stays within traditional boundaries, is a known entity, and doesn’t rock the boat.
On the other hand, the U.S. could allow the leasing of air power via one of these seven companies. If it does, and undertakes the bold effort of contracting an air force, could the U.S. craft a way to afford the pilots some legal protections?
Lastly, will placing mercenaries into the air domain pave the way for non-traditional military service members to wage war in the newer domains of warfare? Time will tell what the decision is to outfit Ukraine with a capable combat air force, but make no mistake, the capability exists today, with aircraft, aircrew and maintainers sitting on airport ramps across the U.S. – and it’s not the U.S. Air Force.
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