Members of Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron-234, (VMGR-234) provide aerial refueling to French Mirage 2000 Fighters from a K C-130J over Djibouti, May 24, 2021. (US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Asselta)

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — France’s announcement that it will send an as-of-yet unannounced number of Mirage 2000-5 fighter aircraft to Ukraine is a welcome boon for Kyiv — likely to take part in both strike missions and protecting other airborne assets.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced to French television network TF1 in a live interview on June 6 that the plane donation would be coming, an announcement that largely caught the world by surprise. However, discussions had been underway for months, with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy making mention of the possible Mirage deal with Paris as far back as February.

The Dassault aircraft would potentially be the second western fighter aircraft to be flown by Ukraine’s armed forces, joining US-made F-16s donated by Denmark, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands, with the first batch of jets expected to arrive sometime this summer.

In operating both types of aircraft, the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU) would be mirroring the force structure of Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Taiwan — all of which also have the two models in their inventories. Like Ukraine, Greece had no advanced combat aircraft in its air force prior to acquiring the F-16 and Mirage 2000 but purchased both in the same year as part of a dual-tracked modernization plan.

The initial Mirage 2000 models were originally flown in 1984, with later variants seeing service in the 1999 NATO campaign in Kosovo. The PSU will be receiving some portion of the 37 more advanced 2000-5 configuration built for the French armed forces. This version features an upgraded set of on-board systems, including the Thales (formerly Thomson-CSF) Radar Doppler Modele Y (RDY) or “Radar Doppler Multi Target” radar set.

The aircraft is powered by a single SAFRAN/SNECMA M53-P2 turbofan engine rated at 14,500 lbs of dry thrust and 21,400 lbs in afterburner. Operating with only internal fuel, it has an operational range of close to 1,000 miles, but it also carries external fuel tanks that double the effective combat radius.

Macron has proposed that Ukraine pilots could begin training by the end of the summer. Typically, pilot training for the Mirage takes around six months, meaning it’s possible Ukrainian pilots could be flying the jets before the end of the year.

But while the Mirages are logical fits for a number of key mission areas, there will be challenges will Ukraine face in incorporating it into its defense.

Diversification Means Complications

There are several issues with Ukraine deciding to go forward with a Mirage acquisition. The addition of a second high-performance fighter aircraft is — in theory — a continuation of the current “high-low mix” maintained within the PSU of the Sukhoi Su-27 and the Mikoyan MiG-29. However, whereas those two Soviet-era aircraft were designed and built from a common set of on-board systems and a single industrial base, combining a US and French-design fighter in the same force presents complications.

One is that supporting the Mirages will be far more challenging. There are nine nations within NATO that have recently or still do operate the F-16, meaning there is a steady supply of both instructor pilots and specialists needed to train ground crew and maintenance personnel. But the NATO countries which have servicemen or contractors who could prepare pilots and mechanics to support the Mirage 2000 are limited to Greece and France itself.

The Hellenic Air Force is also a question in that Athens have also more recently acquired the Rafale from Dassault. Personnel within the service that are familiar with the Mirage may be needed to service Greece’s own jets and not available in sufficient numbers to support the Ukraine program.

Basing becomes another issue, in that an aerodrome used for operations of Ukraine’s Russian-made MiG-29s or Su-27s will have to be significantly re-configured in order to become an F-16 or Mirage 2000 base. In addition, air forces that operate more than one type of fighter tend to have them segregated at separate facilities.

Retried USAF Col. Jeffrey Fischer told Newsweek last week that the decision by Ukraine to acquire the Mirage was a break from the long-standing position of “only F-16s for Ukraine,” and that this “position was founded in maximizing the utility of a single platform [one training, logistics, and maintenance pipeline].”

Fischer conceded that there would now be numerous complications associated with adding a second western fighter into the PSU, but that this decision is based on other considerations.

“While I believe there is risk for Ukraine to take on a second fighter, I also believe I understand why they are doing it,” he told the publication via his Signal channel. “The Biden administration has slow-rolled F-16 delivery to the point that Zelensky is fed up and willing to assume the risk associated with standing up a second Western fighter jet capability.”

A mechanic leads the way for a Mirage 2000-5F jet fighter at Luxeuil-Saint-Sauveur air-base 116, in Saint-Sauveur, eastern France, on March 13, 2022. (SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images)

More Effective Use of Weaponry

If those challenges can be dealt with, the Mirage brings a number of benefits to Kyiv’s defense.

To start, the jets will more effectively employ the French-made weaponry already supplied to the PSU. With Ukraine potentially having two different fighter aircraft in inventory, the PSU will also now have the flexibility to utilize these aircraft for distinctly different missions.

Ukraine had previously received the long-range MBDA SCALP EG and Storm Shadow ALCM missiles from France and the UK. The Anglo-French company was able to adapt the PSU Sukhoi Su-24 theatre-range bomber aircraft to launch them “in only a few weeks” by integrating weapons pylons originally built for the PanAvia Tornado onto the Russian-made air frame.

Not only is this missile part of the Mirage 2000’s regular complement of weaponry, which will permit employment of these missiles across a broader range of missions, but the aircraft can also carry the SAFRAN Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM) “Hammer.” This weapon, a long-range precision-guided glide bomb, had also been previously supplied to Ukraine but was launched by a PSU aircraft only in March of this year.

Given that the Mirage’s Thales self-protection suite is far superior to that of the Ukrainian Su-24’s EW system and the smaller French aircraft’s lower RCS, the Mirage could operate in areas denied to the larger Su-24. This would permit SCALP EG and AASM strikes deeper inside Russian territory than has been possible to date.

One of the other weapons the Mirage 2000-5 employs is the MBDA MICA-RF/EM air-to-air missile (AAM), the functional equivalent of the US-made Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM.

“The MICA missile is sometimes overlooked based on the comparison of the advertised ‘effective range’ of the two weapons,” a retired French test pilot told Breaking Defense. “The MICA’s engagement envelope is listed at only 80 km, which is slightly more than half of the AMRAAM. However, what the US firms do not tell you is that with most of the previous models of the AIM-120, their probability of a kill at its maximum range is 0.59 at best, where the MICA’s Pk at 80km is 0.9.”

When it comes to a potential air-to-air mission, a trio of former Armée de l’Air test pilots that spoke to Breaking Defense emphasized that they believe the radar capabilities of the Mirage 2000-5 give it a leg up on the F-16. The pilots said the Mirage’s Radar Doppler modele Y (RDY) or Radar Doppler Multi Target, is superior in air-to-air performance to both the F-16’s Northrop Grumman AN/APG-68 and the F/A-18C/D’s Raytheon AN/APG-65 radar sets.

One of the test pilots was involved in the 1990s development of the Radar à Balayage Electronique 2 plans (RBE2) passive electronic scanning array (PESA) set that was the Dassault Rafale’s original radar. He stated that the RDY was “in several respects superior to even the RBE2 in the air-to-air envelope,” despite being a mechanically-steered array and not fitted with an electronically-scanning antenna. The reason, the pilot said, is the RDY was designed with air-to-air missions in mind, as opposed to the RBE2 which was designed to be multi-role.

“So, there were compromises made in the air-to-air performance to accommodate air-to-ground mission profiles,” he said.

The same test pilots hastened to add that the latest active array (AESA) version of the RBE2 combined with upgrades in the Rafale’s F4 and F5 software releases have “closed the performance gap” that existed 30 years ago. But that “the [Mirage] RDY remains one of — if not the — best radars of its generation.”

In previous multinational operations in Kosovo and Bosnia, the Mirage 2000 was employed as a high-altitude escort for ISR platforms due to the effectiveness of the active radar-homing variant of the MICA AAM. Notably, included in the most recent military aid package provided to Ukraine by Sweden are two Saab 340 airborne early warning and control aircraft (otherwise designated ASC 890). The Mirage would be a logical fit for the escort mission to support these airborne control platforms.

Three Russian aircraft types that could threaten the Saab 340s are the MiG-31BM, the Su-35S and the Su-30SM, all of which carry the R-37M AAM, which has an engagement envelope of 160 km. The missile’s active-homing seeker is an advanced and enlarged diameter variant of the MNI AGAT 9B-1103M nicknamed the “shayba,” (Russian for “hockey puck”) due to its internal antenna array being approximately the same size.

Having the combination of the Mirage 2000-5’s RDY radar and the MICA-RF/EM AAM will potentially make the French aircraft the primary air-to-air and air defense platform for the PSU. If the Mirages can be datalinked to the Saab 340s, it would provide the Dassault fighter with a longer-range air space picture and targeting data, which could aid both in keeping the Saab 340 safe and providing greater ISR across the board.

In the meantime, Ukraine’s armed forces continue to take the fight progressively deeper into Russian territory using an expanding number of one-way attack drones. Recently, Ukrainian drones struck the 929th Chkalov State Flight Test Centre in Akhtubinsk. This facility is the Russian Aerospace Forces’ (VKS) primary flight test aerodrome and located in the Astrakhan Oblast, which is 365 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.

Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Service (HUR) have reported that this attack destroyed one of the 5th generation Su-57 stealth fighters — only 14 of which have thus far been delivered to the VKS. While public data has raised questions about whether that jet was truly destroyed, commercial imagery indicates at least serious damage to both that jet and, potentially, another located nearby.

Until such time as either the F-16s or Mirages are operational, these drone attacks constitute the most effective strike assets Ukraine has against Russia’s military. The Ukrainian government plans to produce a million of the least-expensive FPV strike drones alone in 2024. That number is more than double the quantity of artillery shells supplied by the EU in the past 12 months.