The comments come a day after Baldwin told reporters that U.S. military officials are working with Ukrainian counterparts on Kyiv’s request to Western nations for fighter aircraft to help repel the Russian invasion.
Although a three-way deal to send U.S. F-16s to Poland if Warsaw provided MiGs to Ukraine fell apart in March, Guard officials are still “steering them” toward the Soviet-era planes in the near term.
“There is a lot of goodness in them going to MiGs because they are already trained in that, but if they are going to use Western-type aircraft, it’s a discussion about numbers and types and capabilities of aircraft that may be available,” Baldwin said.
Members of the California National Guard have a longstanding relationship with the Ukrainian military. Guardsmen have been training with their Ukrainian counterparts in Eastern Europe under a state partnership since the 1990s. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Guard members have also been helping to craft Kyiv’s requests to the Pentagon for weapons to use against Russian forces, Baldwin said.
In response to questions from POLITICO after the Thursday news conference, Lt. Col. Brandon Hill, a spokesperson for the California National Guard, stressed that a final decision about providing U.S.-made fighters to Kyiv would be up to the White House and the Pentagon. But he noted that, even before the conflict started, the intent was always for Ukraine to become “NATO-interoperable,” including giving them the opportunity to operate Western fighters.
California Guard members, particularly the pilots, are communicating with Ukrainian soldiers and airmen on a daily basis to share tactics and ideas, Baldwin noted.
“At our one-star generals, down to our colonels and some of our senior NCOs, they engage with Ukrainian leaders, the Ukrainian defense attaché and others, to help them refine their requests in terms of types of weapons systems are asking for and providing them information of things that might be available at the more tactical level,” Baldwin said Thursday. “The current one that we are working through is, ‘what’s the right fighter aircraft for them?’”
While “we are steering them toward those MiGs first,” there is also an “over-the-horizon” discussion of what aircraft will be needed in the future, Baldwin said.
“In the midterm, over the course of the next six months to the year and then the long term: What’s in the realm of possibility for systems that would be effective, available and affordable for them?” he said.
NATO members Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia all operate the MiG-29, but their limited inventories are on the way out. Slovakia will replace its Soviet-era jets with U.S. F-16s in 2024, and the U.S. approved the sale of several F-16s to Bulgaria in April. Poland meanwhile signed a deal in 2020 for 32 F-35s, and Polish leaders have recently said they’re interested in adding to that number as soon as possible.
The three-way deal between Poland, the U.S. and Ukraine fell apart in March when the U.S. said it would not support the transfer.
“We do not support the transfer of the fighters to the Ukrainian air force at this time and have no desire to see them in our custody either,” John Kirby told reporters at the time, after Poland offered to hand over the MiGs to the U.S. for eventual transfer to Ukraine. The Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community had assessed the warplanes wouldn’t materially improve Ukraine’s ability to fend off Russia, but instead could draw NATO directly into the conflict, Kirby added.
There were also logistical issues involved in getting fighter jets over the border into Ukraine, and with flying the planes from a NATO country into a war zone.
But in recent days, the U.S. and other Western nations have begun supplying Ukraine with more advanced weapons. The U.S. will send the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and guided rockets that can strike targets up to 48 miles away, President Joe Biden announced this week, while the U.K. is also seeking approval to send advanced rocket systems.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the Biden administration also plans to sell Kyiv four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles.
Officials debated sending the HIMARS for weeks over concerns that sending advanced, longer-range rockets could provoke Vladimir Putin into escalating the conflict. Ultimately, they decided to send shorter-range munitions, and said they had received assurances that Kyiv would not use them to strike targets in Russia.
“America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression,” Biden wrote in a New York Times oped announcing the move. “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia.”
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.