Two Ukrainian air force fighter pilots stepped out of the cockpit and onto Capitol Hill last week to plead with the U.S. to send advanced aircraft to level the playing field in the war with Russia, a request that the Biden administration has repeatedly denied.
Ukraine deployed the MIG-29 pilots, who go by their callsigns “Juice” and “Moonfish,” for a lobbying blitz in Washington that included meetings with dozens of lawmakers and Pentagon officials.
As they prepared to go back to the front lines, the airmen told The Washington Times that they have no doubt the lawmakers have their back. But they said time is running out to get the airpower they need to turn the tide as the war drags on with Russia.
“You can imagine that the sense of urgency is different between Ukraine and here,” Moonfish said in an interview. “But now that we have been here, me and Juice, we know that the amount of support is tremendous and the U.S. are doing everything they can to provide us with the weapons.”
The sense of urgency has only grown for the two pilots, who said that by Monday, they would be back in the cockpit and on the front lines of a Russian assault that shows no signs of letting up.
Despite their upbeat assessment of the Capitol Hill meetings, Juice and Moonfish know they are headed back into an air war in which the Ukrainians are outgunned and outnumbered.
“Our guys are trying to do their best, and they are doing incredible work with this old equipment,” said Juice. “But we need fighter jets. We need a modern, fourth-generation U.S. platform to gain real air superiority, to intercept targets, and to gain capabilities for a counter-offensive in the air.”
The Times used the pilots’ callsigns to hide their identities and protect their families from potential retaliation from Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has begged Western allies to help Ukraine battle Russia’s bombardment of his country with a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and fighter jets to protect Ukraine’s skies.
The U.S. has been reticent to send more advanced aircraft into Ukraine, though Washington has flooded the battlefield with $6.1 billion in military aid since the start of the war in late February. The weapons the U.S. has agreed to send have increased incrementally in lethality and range, but President Biden has been skittish about handing over certain advanced weapons to Ukraine over fears of being drawn into direct war with Russia.
U.S. officials also have raised concerns about the training time needed to field certain weapons, including advanced fighter jets.
Beyond the sheer size of the Russian air force compared to Ukraine’s, Juice and Moonfish said their country’s MiG-29s are no match for state-of-the-art Russian Su-27s and Su-35s.
Russian fighters carry active-radar or “fire and forget” air-to-air missiles, he said, which allow their fighters to change course immediately after firing on enemy aircraft. Ukrainian MiG-29s carry semi-autonomous missiles that require the pilot to remain locked on the target.
The world looked on in awe as Ukraine’s air force continues to pose a formidable threat to Russia in the sky above Ukraine. Military analysts expected Russia to quickly defeat Ukraine’s air defenses, allowing them to gain a decisive advantage and quickly end the war.
Ukrainian forces claimed to have destroyed more than 200 aircraft since the war began, and Russia has yet to claim complete air superiority despite fielding far superior fighters.
The pilots said Ukraine’s success in the sky has been through the sheer will and ironclad determination of its pilots and ground crews.
Both acknowledge that these intangibles have their limits.
Juice and Moonfish said their mission on Capitol Hill was to put a human face on the line items on the requests lawmakers receive from Ukraine.
“The senators, congressmen and experts from the Pentagon heard our real stories. Not just a formal request with some numbers and some names of systems. But they heard the real stories, the real stories of our fighting. The real problems,” said Juice.
“Now they understand our needs much deeper, and I hope they will help us to receive everything we need as soon as possible to save more lives, to defend our democracy, and to actually win this war,” he said.
One of those lawmakers the two met with, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, introduced legislation with fellow Air Force veteran Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, Pennsylvania Democrat, that would authorize funding for training and military assistance to Ukrainian pilots.
“It’s a great start,” Juice said. “We needed to start yesterday, but I hope other lawmakers will support this initiative, and as a next step will provide the political decision to deliver fighter jets.”
Despite being in Washington for the week, Juice and Moonfish said they never felt far from the front lines. They said they were constantly reminded of the war raging in their homeland as they advocated for their fellow countrymen.
They also said they would return to battle with a message of hope about increased U.S. aid.
“We will try to motivate our guys. We will tell them, ‘Just wait. They will support us,’” Juice said. “‘Just wait.’”