Perfectly good aircraft are sitting idle in U.S. deserts, when they could be aiding Kyiv’s counteroffensive.
While the West works out how to transfer F-16s to Ukraine by the end of the year and train its pilots, there’s a way America can get Ukrainian air power stocked now: a boneyard air force. For decades the U.S. has kept retired airframes—a mix of jets, turboprop aircraft and helicopters—at the ready to either be brought back into service or used for parts. This inventory offers a simple way to give Ukraine the means to defend itself in the near term without escalating the conflict.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive urgently needs air support. Russia uses its current control of the skies to interdict Ukrainian forces already struggling to fight through trenches, minefields and obstacles covered by artillery. Against all odds, Ukraine still conducts air sorties, but to preserve its materiel and pilots, they often have to be limited in scope.
The West has largely held back modern aircraft for fear that supplying Kyiv could lead to escalation. Washington approved sending F-16s only in May and has yet to begin training Ukrainian pilots in their use. But there’s a quicker, simpler way to challenge Russia in the air and support Ukrainian ground attacks against fortified positions.
This military challenge is tailor-made for a boneyard air force made up of out-of-use U.S. aircraft. America has on hand the mix of electronic attack and ground-interdiction aircraft Ukraine needs to support its counteroffensive. For example, the U.S. boneyard has 36 EA-6B prowler aircraft that specialize in jamming radars and communication systems. These systems were retired over the past decade and can be used to suppress enemy air defenses.
The same mission could also be performed by cheaper unmanned and optionally manned aircraft to save money and protect Ukrainian pilots. There are more than 50 MQ-1Bs predators and 40 C-12 Hurons, a multirole turboprop aircraft, that can collect intelligence as well as jam enemy radars. This combination would make it difficult for Russian radar to find Ukrainian aircraft sent to attack ground formations.
With aerial intelligence and jamming capabilities, Ukraine could launch ground attack missions in support of its combined arms brigades on the front. These missions could use a mix of specialty aircraft also found in the boneyard, such as the A-10 thunderbolt and recently decommissioned attack helicopters.
There are more than 100 decommissioned A-10s ready to go and 281 in service that the U.S. Air Force has requested Congress retire. These could move on to the boneyard themselves by the end of this fiscal year. While A-10s couldn’t survive a contested air environment on their own, combining them with specialty radar-jamming aircraft like the EA-6B would change the equation.
The boneyard also has more than 140 AH-1 attack helicopter variants and 70 UH-1 utility helicopter variants, many of which are brand new, owing to the recent Marine Corps modernization. Combined with the MQ-1 drone variants currently sitting idle, the Ukrainians could replicate proven manned-unmanned teaming tactics used by the U.S. Army. Drones and attack helicopters could hunt Russian tanks and artillery together along the front line, using long-range sensors and jamming to increase their survivability.
Artificial intelligence could protect Ukrainian pilots, too, by turning many of these manned systems into unmanned aircraft operated from the ground. It would take relatively simple artificial intelligence, the efficacy of which the U.S. Army has already proved. Coupled with Ukraine’s army of small swarming drones, these optionally manned systems could create a high-low mix, in which less expensive aircraft alongside a few extremely capable machines have the effect of a much larger force. A mix of unmanned systems like the MQ-1 drones and converted aircraft would use jamming and long-range missile strikes at higher altitudes, while swarming drones and remotely piloted helicopters would create chaos along the front line.
Even the threat of A-10 sorties and attack helicopters would create opportunities for more Ukrainian surface-to-air attacks against Russian jets. Each Russian jet that has to patrol closer to the front line to hunt for Ukrainian airframes risks taking a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile. Each additional surface-to-air missile platform Russia pushes forward to shoot down Ukraine’s boneyard air forces becomes another target for long-range strike assets like Himars and ground-launched small-diameter bombs.
With F-16s already headed to Ukraine, it seems unlikely that sending these aircraft could escalate the conflict. Moreover, these combinations of boneyard aircraft would provide the Biden administration ways to limit the risk that the war blows up beyond Ukrainian borders. Washington could start by sending helicopters and unmanned systems and ensure control stations in Ukraine are loaded with geofencing to keep aircraft outside Russia and Belarus.
These systems have ranges comparable to weapons already transferred to Ukraine but provide flexibility to local military leaders to create new formations around the emerging Ukrainian way of war. If that shows results and doesn’t lead to escalation, the administration could start the transfer of ground-attack aircraft like the A-10.
Regardless of the package, the boneyard airframes are much cheaper to send than new aircraft. Washington and its partners would still need to train Ukrainian pilots and advise on creative combinations of air assets, but these costs would be manageable and in line with our current efforts. Even if the Ukrainians only use half the aircraft and cannibalize the rest for parts, it’d be a significant combat multiplier. Letting the machines gather dust in the U.S. does no one any good.
Mr. Jensen is a senior fellow at the International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Appeared in the August 10, 2023, print edition as ‘To Get Ukraine Air Support Quickly, Try the Boneyard’.