On Friday, the Biden administration announced it would join a rapidly forming coalition of European states training Ukrainian pilots to fly American F-16 fighters — and begin discussing how to get those jets into Ukraine as well. The announcement caps a monthslong pressure campaign from Ukraine and its allies, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly helping convince Biden to change his mind.
It now seems only a matter of time before F-16s make their way into Ukrainian hands.
While several countries promise to help with training, none have yet firmly committed to supplying the jets. Still, it now seems only a matter of time before F-16s make their way into Ukrainian hands, with the Netherlands and Denmark possibly kicking things off. (Although to be clear, it will take months for Ukrainian pilots and mechanics to be trained on the aircraft, even if given a shortened crash course.)
This development was overdue. Ukraine officials have said their Soviet-legacy air force hasn’t received new combat aircraft since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Thus, helping Ukraine operate Western fighters is a sensible long-term project that should begin as soon as possible — even if the fighting were magically to end tomorrow. A modernized air force will be vital if Ukraine is to deter or defeat future invasions. In the short term, the addition of F-16s could eventually make Russia’s current invasion less sustainable.
Prior to 2022, I was skeptical that Ukraine’s air force would last long against Russian air power. But Ukraine’s fighter and bomber squadrons avoided destruction on Russia’s D-Day by preemptively dispersing to satellite bases, and put up a crucial fight in the war’s first days.
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That bought time for Ukraine’s ground-based air defenses to redeploy to safer positions and get back online — and those defenses have kept Russian manned aircraft from penetrating deep into Ukrainian airspace ever since.
After heavy early war losses, Russian air operations settled into a routine seemingly designed to minimize risk via tactics like lobbing glide bombs at Ukrainian border cities and using very long-range air-to-air missiles against distant Ukrainian jets. Ukraine’s Soviet warbirds lack the long-range radars and missiles needed to fight back effectively against such tactics.
On the other hand, it’s true that F-16s are not the most important form of military assistance that could be given to Ukraine. Donations of F-16s shouldn’t preclude other kinds of assistance of greater immediate value like artillery ammunition, air defense missiles and so forth. The planes certainly won’t impact Kyiv’s forthcoming offensives this spring and summer.
Donations of F-16s shouldn’t preclude other kinds of assistance of greater immediate value like artillery ammunition, air defense missiles and so forth.
Indeed, because both sides’ ground-based air defenses are so deadly, even Russia’s more powerful air force has so far had a limited impact on the ground war.
But demanding that every weapon be a “game changer” — or be immune to attrition — is an unreasonable litmus test. Any military analyst will tell you it takes a mix of inter-supporting systems to prevail in modern warfare. While combat aviation hasn’t been decisive in this conflict, it’s an important area Kyiv hasn’t been able to modernize.
And while a modest Ukrainian F-16 fleet won’t win the war, it could introduce risks and impose costs to Russia’s own combat aviation operations, help shoot down cruise missiles lobbed at Ukrainian cities, and give Kyiv new land and maritime attack options.
There are several reasons Kyiv campaigned specifically for the F-16, a low-cost but capable single-engine jet fighter that entered service more than 40 years ago. (Note: Ukraine hasn’t lobbied for U.S. stealth fighters, or cutting-edge non-stealth jets.) The F-16 is less expensive to procure, operate and sustain then a stealth or twin-engine fighters. And it is realistically donatable, while a costly fighter with cutting-edge technologies wouldn’t be.
The F-16 also doesn’t outmatch Russia’s newest fighters. But it can employ the AIM-120 missiles Ukrainian pilots need to be able to fight back at beyond-visual range—even if it still would be a tough fight. It versatile too, and able to deploy a wide range of weapons and systems against ground targets (including air defenses) and ships.
Plus, there are a lot of them. As of 2020, close to 4,600 F-16s had been built, with more in production according to Lockheed Martin. They are in use in over two dozen countries, including Ukraine’s neighbors Poland, Romania and soon Slovakia. That in turn means there are a lot of places Ukraine can turn to for F-16 parts, repair facilities, maintenance contractors and pilot training.
New F-16s are still in production in Greenville, South Carolina, and will remain in service for decades. So in the longer term, Kyiv will have opportunities both to acquire F-16s as they’re retired elsewhere or procure new ones. Old F-16s can be refurbished and upgraded with state-of-the-art radars, as Taiwan is doing with its older F-16s even as it buys new ones.
Supporting Ukraine’s defense is expensive — but dollars and euros going to help Ukraine defend itself are well spent given Russia’s manifest threat to global security.
It’s not just that the ethics of helping Ukraine defeat an unprovoked invasion should be crystal clear. The extent to which Vladimir Putin’s invasion fails, and he’s convinced he can’t win by starting a new one, will affect the future security of the U.S. and its allies in Europe and even Asia.