France to send Mirage jets to Ukraine – but are they worth the bother?

With advanced missiles and radar, capable of shooting down four aerial targets at once, the Mirage 2000 seems ideally suited to defend the skies over Ukraine.

But taking on another Western jet could cause headaches for Kyiv, experts have warned after Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, announced he would start selling the jets to Ukraine “by the end of the year”.

Ukraine is already struggling to prepare for the arrival of American-made F-16s. Like the F-16, the Mirage will only have a meaningful impact on the war effort if Ukraine’s Western partners can help build and maintain the extensive support and logistics infrastructure needed to keep it in the air.

There is uncertainty over whether the neatly-kept airfields and glut of spare parts required by the American F-16 jets will arrive in time for them to join the fray as expected this summer.

“We’ve seen from the F-16s, that even with 80 aircraft donated, it’s taking a lot of time and lots of resources in multiple countries,” said Prof Justin Bronk, senior research fellow for airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute.

Three Mirage jets, seen in flight from above, with fields far below themThree Mirage jets, seen in flight from above, with fields far below them

The jets have shorter-range missiles than American F-16s – Christophe Simon/AFP

In recent months, the French themselves had suggested that donating Mirage to Ukraine would only complicate matters for the transfer of F-16s – and stepped aside, until President Macron made his announcement on Thursday.

The Ukrainians have faced serious challenges in establishing enough suitable air bases to operate their expected fleet of F-16s without them becoming immediately obvious to the Russians.

Ukrainian sources have discussed building underground bunkers to protect the planes from long-range missile and drone strikes by Russian forces.

Modern, Nato-standard aircraft need clean runways, free from “foreign object debris” (FOD), especially the F-16, which is particularly sensitive because of its under-belly air intake.

The Mirage 2000 is more resistant to FOD than the F-16, and capable of using rougher surfaces, but it will still be difficult to find suitable locations to house fleets of both aircraft.

“It’s probably not worth all the personnel and huge resources that it will take to develop a Ukrainian Mirage 2000 capability, get it up and running and defend it in Ukraine,” Prof Bronk said.

Like the F-16, the Mirage is a single-engine, multi-role fighter jet, which first entered into service in the 1970s, and shares many similarities with its American-made counterpart.

An F-16 jet in use by the Romanian Air ForceAn F-16 jet in use by the Romanian Air Force

American-made F-16s require a clean area for take-off – Alamy

The aircraft are closely matched with respect to their performance.

The 2000-5, or “dash five” model that Emmanuel Macron earmarked for the Ukrainians is one of the most modern variants of the jet and features an upgraded radar and a high-tech, touch-screen glass cockpit borrowed from the later Rafale jet.

It is also capable of firing sophisticated missiles like the Storm Shadow.

But its Mica air-to-air missile, while highly capable, falls short of the Amraam fired by the F-16.

“Mica is by no means a bad missile… it’s a fairly agile missile that can be pretty unpleasant to defend against if you’re inside what is called the no escape zone. But it is fundamentally, significantly shorter-ranged than Amraam,” Prof Bronk said.

Mica missiles boast specifications claiming they can hit targets up to 50 miles away, compared to the Amraam’s range of 75 miles.

To achieve such ranges, shots would have to be taken at high altitude, where the air is thinner, and with the launching aircraft travelling at supersonic speeds.

But the presence of so many Russian anti-aircraft missiles along the front lines means Ukrainian pilots must fly sorties at very low altitude, limiting their effectiveness against the Russian fighter-bombers who have been pummelling Kyiv’s ground forces.

Prof Bronk said: “There are layers of medium to very long-range SAMs anywhere near the front line. Any Ukrainian fighter is going to be flying at very low altitudes to try and use terrain-masking to minimise the range at which those SAM systems can engage them.

“It’s a really significant limiting factor for how much utility they can get in the crucial air defence task of which any fighter is primarily needed.”

More costly than ground-based systems

The jets could, of course, be used to fend-off missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities, but at an incredible cost compared to using ground-based systems for the task.

“It [Mirage] could be used to intercept cruise missiles and Shahed-type drones inside Ukraine, but so can F-16, and quite frankly it’s an incredibly expensive way of trying to do that,” said Prof Bronk.

Paris is building a coalition of countries that operate the Mirage 2000, with the ultimate goal of having an unspecified number of the planes in the war-torn country by the end of the year.

The programme mirrors the scheme by Nato allies to provide Ukraine’s air force with dozens of F-16s.

France’s access to Mirage 2000-5 models is extremely limited – its air force only has around 26 of the dash five version in service, and they are set to be replaced entirely by 2029 – but it was an export success.

To start delivering en masse, Paris would need to negotiate with the likes of Greece, India, and the UAE, whose air forces use the jet.

In February, Indonesia backed out of a €700 million (£594 million) deal to buy 12 of the aircraft, potentially meaning they could be freed up for Ukraine.

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