Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon on Tuesday evening pushed back against an announcement by Poland proposing a multinational fighter jet swap that could bolster Ukraine’s air force.
Poland’s offer to transfer its MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets to the U.S. military in Germany, so the U.S. could then decide whether to give them to Ukraine, is not ”tenable,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a Tuesday evening release.
Kirby’s response came hours after the Polish government kicked off a furious scramble Tuesday when it suggested “immediately” sending all of its Fulcrums to Ramstein Air Base. The news came as a surprise to U.S. officials despite negotiations on the issue that have been ongoing for several days.
“The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America’ departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Kirby said. “It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it.”
Earlier in the day, the Pentagon said the vast majority of Ukraine’s airspace is protected by Russian air defenses that would threaten the loaned MiG-29s.
“The decision about whether to transfer Polish-owned planes to Ukraine is ultimately one for the Polish government,” said Kirby. “We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.”
The aircraft come free of charge, Poland’s foreign affairs minister Zbigniew Rau wrote in a statement posted to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Poland owns nearly 30 combat-ready MiG-29s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” Rau said. “Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”
He asked other NATO allies that own MiG-29s to do the same. Ukrainian air force pilots are already trained to fly the Soviet-era jets, which are akin to American F-16 Fighting Falcons or F/A-18 Hornets.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said she learned of Poland’s idea as she was driving to Capitol Hill.
“I was in a meeting where I ought to have heard about that just before I came [to the Hill], so I think that actually was a surprise move by the Poles,” she said, adding: “I look forward ... to getting back to my desk and seeing how we will respond to this proposal of theirs to give the plans to us.”
A State Department spokesperson told Air Force Times on Tuesday the U.S. is working with the Poles and consulting other NATO allies on the issue.
“This is Poland’s sovereign decision to make,” they added. “We have in no way opposed Poland transferring planes to Ukraine.”
Still, they noted, several “challenging practical questions” still remain — like how NATO countries would actually hand off their MiG-29s to the Ukrainians.
“We very much support them providing MiGs, SUs, planes that Ukrainian can fly, to the Ukrainians,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday. “But we also want to see if we can be helpful ... in making sure that whatever they provide to the Ukrainians, something goes to them to make up for any gap in the security for Poland that might result. We’re actively talking about that right now.”
Officials in Ukraine, which is not currently a member of NATO or the European Union, have pleaded for more military assistance from the U.S. and other European countries as it nears two weeks of battling the Russian invasion. But critics worry Russia will retaliate against countries that contribute aircraft and other major combat systems to the fight.
The West has provided a range of anti-tank munitions, combat gear, targeting intelligence and other resources, but so far shied away from committing troops or military vehicles.
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the foreign relations panel, on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to come up with a plan to backfill Polish planes with U.S. F-16s or a similar jet “to ensure this transfer can happen and encourage our other allies to follow Poland’s brave example.”
He made a similar argument at a rally in Washington to support Ukraine on Sunday, before Poland agreed to transfer the jets to the United States.
In an exchange with Nuland, Portman called Poland’s announcement “a good sign” and said he hoped Poland would also transfer its Su-25s, and that Slovakia and Bulgaria would make similar moves.
The deal has bipartisan support, as Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who also sits on Senate Foreign Relations, urged the U.S. to it move swiftly.
“I would ask that, if this is not going to be handled quickly, to please advise this committee ... Time is of the essence and we would like to see those planes there yesterday,” he told Nuland.
As of March 4, the U.S. had delivered $240 million in weapons to Ukraine as part of a $350 million defense aid package President Joe Biden approved last month, according to the State Department. That offering includes anti-tank Javelin missiles, small arms, body armor and other munitions.
Asked about further U.S. missile transfers to Ukraine, Nuland declined to discuss the matter openly but told lawmakers the government is “working very hard and fast on that now.”
As of Feb. 26, the United States had provided more than $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine in the past year, Blinken said. The White House is seeking at least $10 billion more from Congress to fund humanitarian support and military operations related to the Russian war in Ukraine.
Washington’s next step will be to assess the further defense needs of Poland, which the U.S. is supplying Patriot missile defense batteries and benefits from “full air security from the NATO alliance,” Nuland said.
Military Times Pentagon bureau chief Meghann Myers contributed to this report.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.