Can the French Mirage 2000-5 help the Ukrainian army?

French mirage 2000-5/ photo: Le monde

How much, for what purpose and how effective are they? Many questions remain unanswered following Emmanuel Macron's promise to supply fighter jets to Ukraine.

After the Caesar rifles in February 2022, at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, came the AMH-10 armored vehicles in January 2023, and then the Scalp missiles in July of the same year. France took another step in its aid by promising Kiev an as yet unspecified number of Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets.

The delivery is intended to bolster Ukraine's air defense capabilities, which are particularly lacking in the region around Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, which suffers from constant fire from Russian aircraft.

"Tomorrow we will start a new cooperation and announce the transfer of Mirage 2000-5s that will allow Ukraine to protect its land and airspace," Macron announced on June 6.

The President of France, Emmanuel Macron/photo: EPA

The French president also promised to start a pilot training program in France at the same time – a "key factor" in the timing of the jet's entry into service – which he said would be completed by the end of the year. As for the number and origin of these aircraft, both questions remain unanswered.

"I will not give you the names of the partners, nor a final number." It's more effective and gives less visibility to the adversary," he added the next day.

The Mirage 2000-5, an evolution of its predecessor, the 2000C, is the oldest aircraft in service with the French Air Force. In service for almost 25 years, this model is certainly less powerful than the Rafale, destined to replace it by 2030, but it is far from obsolete. It remains an essential part of the defense of French skies, as well as external operations, especially under the auspices of NATO, analyzes "Le Monde". 

As Macron suggested, those planes are used in the function of the so-called "cleaner of the sky". They can also be used for ground attack missions, "already tested and implemented by other nations possessing this type of aircraft", according to the French Air Force, which however does not use them for this purpose.

Ukrainian President Zelensky/EPA

As for air defense, the main trump card (of the fighter jet) is its multi-purpose radar doppler, known by its acronym RDY, which can detect up to 24 targets, track them at night and simultaneously fire four MICA (Missiles for interception, combat and self-defense). missiles with a range of 80 kilometers at the same number of separate targets. It can be guided in "Fox 3" mode, a NATO code that means the missile, initially guided by the aircraft's radar, "opens its eyes" using only an electromagnetic or infrared beacon once it approaches the target, aiming. to be managed. Only then is the pilot of the target aircraft alerted that he is "hooked", leaving him little time to react.

How many planes are available?

The French Air Force has 26 of these aircraft, barely enough to meet its operational requirements and those of international missions.

Most of them are used by the 1/2 Cigognes squadron, based in Luxeil, south-east France, where one of them crashed in November 2022. Four others are permanently based in Djibouti under the defense treaty, and several regularly participate in NATO's Enhanced Air Policing Mission, which involves deterring Russian aircraft from entering Euro-Atlantic airspace. Four aircraft were deployed to Lithuania in November and two to Sweden in February.

Since a squadron consists of about 20 vessels, taking some of the Luxey squadron's supplies would end its existence, while others seem no less essential. Therefore, the coalition, which Macron announced on Thursday, will be tasked with finding them abroad. Sixty have already been delivered to Taiwan, where they appear just as vital given ongoing tensions with China. A dozen or so used by Qatari forces – which the emirate has been trying in vain to sell to Indonesia for several years. The United Arab Emirates is also equipped with them, as well as Greece, which is also seeking to have them, as Defense Minister Nikos Dendias confirmed at the end of March.

However, the number will remain far below that of the F-16. A total of 111 Mirage 2000-5s have been produced, according to Dassault, while 2.300 US competitors are in service in 25 countries.

"This is why the model was favored by the Ukrainian authorities and their allies from the beginning," said Jean-Claude Allard, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and an expert on army aeronautics.

Following authorization from Washington, the Netherlands and Denmark committed to deliver 61 F-16s in August. Norway followed, and then Belgium promised some, the first this year and the others by 2028. "The same thing happened with the Leopard tank," not only because of availability, but also because of integration problems, the expert continued. "The diversification of models leads to the multiplication of logistics chains and the tying up of personnel that could be useful for something else. In the case of the Mirage 2000-5, we are talking about a very small fleet, which we know is very difficult. to manage and maintain and monopolize the workforce,” he added.


Do "mirages" meet Ukraine's needs?

Regardless of their numbers, their usefulness is by no means guaranteed, according to Justin Bronk, a defense systems expert and researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Training pilots and maintenance personnel – 160 to 280 per squadron – and setting up logistics chains could even be detrimental to the F-16's deployment, he said. This is why Sweden recently decided not to supply Gripen fighters, even though they are more suitable than the Mirage for the needs of the Ukrainian army, the British researcher explained, considering the French decision "a little strange", not only because of the schedule. but also because of the weapons involved.

"What the Ukrainian Air Force most urgently needs is the ability to 'engage' Russian fighters operating 50, 60 or 70 kilometers behind the front line, at very high altitude and high speed," Bronk said. "Only long-range missiles can be truly effective, and the range of the MICA is significantly shorter than that of the US AIM-120 AMRAAM, which the F-16 will likely be equipped with, and which is not even sufficient."

"To get close to the front line and bring the Russian planes into range, you have to fly very low. This means that the missile starts its trajectory in a very dense atmosphere and has to fight against gravity," he explained, adding that the "no-escape zone" – in other words, the distance that guarantees impact effectiveness – is, as a general rule, between a third and a quarter of the maximum range.

"That's not to say the Mirage 2000-5 can't play other roles, such as shooting down Russian drones, but given the financial, logistical and human constraints, I'm not convinced that's a good idea right now," Bronk concluded.

The second part of Macron's announcements, which refers to the training in France of 4.500 Ukrainian military personnel, which is the equivalent of a brigade, seems much more logical to him, "Le Monde" analyzes.

The training provided so far by Kiev's allies has been reduced in both time and number, which was one of the limiting factors in last summer's counteroffensive.

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