Ukraine has asked Australia about the condition of dozens of retired F-18 fighter jets, the country’s ambassador told AFP on Tuesday, eyeing a potential weapons transfer that could significantly boost Kyiv’s airpower.
Vasyl Myroshnychenko said an initial request had been made about the state of an estimated 41 planes stored at an air base north of Sydney.
“There has been a request for information,” Myroshnychenko said. “Ukraine is looking at fighter jet capabilities, including this one.”
Ukraine recently won long-sought White House approval to acquire advanced “fourth generation” US-made aircraft such as the F-16.
Although decades old, the F-16 would be a massive upgrade on Ukraine’s stock of Soviet-era MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets — posing a potent threat to Russian air and ground forces.
Several Western nations have signaled an interest in supplying Ukraine with F-16s, but Ukraine’s interest in Australia’s jets is the first time F-18s have been publicly discussed.
Mick Ryan, a strategist and retired Australian major general, told AFP that the F-18s could help “level the playing field” against Russia’s larger and better-equipped air force — helping prevent strikes on Ukrainian towns, cities, and critical infrastructure.
“The key capabilities the Ukrainians would be after would be longer range sensors and longer range weapons than they currently have with MiG-29s,” Ryan said.
“If they can level the playing field with the Russians in this regard, they can push missile launching aircraft further away from Ukraine and push back ground attack aircraft as well.”
Ukraine currently has an estimated 82 fighter and attack jets, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance publication.
‘Not Yet Finalized’
But any F-18 deal appears some way off, requiring diplomatic and logistical cooperation between Canberra, Washington, and Kyiv.
It is unclear how many of the F-18s are still operable, although one source familiar with the negotiations put the figure at between 12 and 16 jets.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s fleet of 71 F-18s was retired between 2019 and 2021 — making way for state-of-the-art F-35s.
Some were sold to Canada, while the 41 under discussion are said to have been optioned by Houston-based RAVN Aerospace.
Initial talks have focused on transferring the RAVN-contracted planes to Kyiv, a deal that would require approval by the firm, Ukraine, Australia, and the United States.
“The specifics of any potential deal are not yet finalised,” said Robert Potter, an Australian who frequently visits Kyiv and advises the Ukrainian government.
“There are multiple formal approvals required to conclude a procurement of these planes but it is likely an idea whose time has come,” he told AFP.
While the White House and Ukraine are said to be receptive to the proposal, Australia’s government has been more cautious.
For Canberra, it would represent a step change in assistance for Ukraine and much deeper involvement in a war taking place half a world away.
So far Canberra has pledged about 500 million Australian dollars ($340 million) in military assistance to Ukraine, including Bushmaster and M113 armored vehicles, drones, and 155-millimeter howitzers.
A new package of weapons for Ukraine is expected to be voted on by Australia’s cabinet ahead of a July NATO summit in Lithuania. It is likely to include more Bushmasters and Hawkei patrol vehicles, but not F-18s.
Ahead of the announcement, the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is coming under increasing pressure from the conservative opposition to do more.
In a recent letter to the government, shadow defense minister Andrew Hastie called for the country to “urgently” consider providing Hawkeis, M1 Abrams tanks, and F/A-18 Hornets.
“Australia’s commitments have failed to keep pace with our partners,” he warned. “Other non-NATO contributors now increasingly overshadow Australia’s support.”