This past week, it’s rumored that a pilot known as the “Ghost of Kyiv” defeated six Russian aircraft before being shot down and killed. This would make him the 21st century’s first fighter-ace. His efforts, and those of pilots like him, have thus far unexpectedly denied Russia air superiority over Ukraine’s skies. This air war must be won if Ukraine is to win this war. Ukraine’s air forces are outmanned (they have far fewer pilots than Russia) and outclassed (their MiG-29s are a generation behind Russian fighter aircraft). The President Zelensky has called for an NATO-enforced, no-fly zone above Ukraine. This request will probably go unfulfilled because it would pit NATO and Russian planes against each other. However, there is a way to give Zelensky the air power he needs without pitting NATO aircraft against Russian ones—and it’s something the U.S. has done in the past.
The Lend Lease Act was created in the first days of World War II. It allowed the United States to arm its allies (such as British and Chinese) without becoming an active participant. American military pilots and ground crews were granted leaves of absence from their units to serve in squadrons like the Flying Tigers in China and in the “Eagle Squadrons” of the Royal Air Force. Indeed, some of America’s greatest fighter aces from the Second World War, pilots like Marine Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, scored their first kills flying aircraft that didn’t have U.S. markings. These volunteer pilots, who number more than 100 in total, helped to stop the Axis from attacking theaters of war that were as distant as Japan’s invasion of China or the Battle of Britain.
Despite the heroic resistance of its initial leaders, the Ukrainian military now finds itself in a difficult position. While NATO member nations are beginning to talk about the transfer of hundreds of aircraft to Ukraine’s air force, they must remember that planes only one part of the equation when trying to deny Russia air superiority. Stinger missiles and anti-aircraft systems play an important role. However, no strategy for air can be successful without the support of a solid roster.
While negotiations were underway for aircraft, President Zelensky made an announcement about the formation of an International Brigade that would fight in Ukraine. This program, which allows foreigners with military experience to enlist in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, is a wise move. NATO members should increase that effort. Zelensky needs their support. He should work with Zelensky’s defense ministry on a program that will allow NATO-affiliated pilots to fly to Ukraine.
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There is a lot of precedent for this program. Not only during the Second World War, but also in the First World War. This was when the Lafayette Escadrille flew many years in France as a group of American pilots before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. However, the greatest precedence for such a program might be in Russia’s current aggression toward Ukraine. When Russia first invaded Ukraine, in 2014, and seized the Crimean Peninsula, it did so with its “little green men.” These soldiers wore no markings on their uniforms. These soldiers claimed to be of no Russian Federation affiliation. And they masqueraded as “self-defense groups.” Only later, after Russia’s successful annexation of the Crimea, did the Kremlin concede they were members of Russian airborne and Spetsnaz units.
Provoking a nuclear-armed Russia and a seemingly unhinged Putin is certainly a concern worth weighing, but a flight exchange program plays Russia’s strategy of “little green men” back at it, except in this case it will be the “little blue men” of the free world who will take to the skies over Ukraine. These volunteer pilots will fly planes with Ukrainian markings. They should also be given dual Ukrainian citizenship to mitigate any political consequences in case they are killed. A downed Ukrainian pilot flying a Ukrainian aircraft is a lesser cause for outrage—particularly given Russia’s behavior of the past week—than a NATO aircraft flying the same mission. As for the numbers, from my own experience among pilots, an announcement in any fighter squadron’s ready room would likely yield all the volunteers President Zelensky would need.
Putin may not have been able to achieve many of his military objectives but he is a master at surprising the world by his insatiable appetite for naked aggression. It’s time to surprise him back, and a program of volunteer pilots isn’t something Putin is expecting. By invading Ukraine, he has entered into a war. NATO and other nations have now been faced with the war of necessity by his war of choice. As they say, necessity can be the mother of invention. It’s time for us to get inventive. We’ve done it before.