US F-16 Permission Makes A Big Difference

For many the highlight of the recent G7 summit conference held in Hiroshima was US President Joe Biden signalling, at long last, that the USA would not stand in the way of European nations donating their redundant F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

By announcing this at the G7 summit, and also stating that the US would train Ukrainian pilots to fly these aircraft, he cleverly coerced his allies into supporting the decision. This was a clever piece of diplomacy, and not before time in my opinion. How long has Zelensky been asking for them? Well, he appears to have got his way in the end.

Earlier in the month, Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte had agreed to work together to build an international coalition consensus to support Kyiv with pilot training and the procurement of F-16 jets. Now Washington has agreed to allow Western allies to send their US-made jets to Ukraine and also has started its own programme for training Ukrainian pilots..

It seems that President Biden’s initial reluctance to sponsor the F-16 programme was caused by fear of escalating the conflict. That this caution has been overcome suggests that the White House’s appetite for risk has been enhanced somewhat.

America’s other worry, that the Ukrainians would not be able to operate these jets effectively, was always a nonsense excuse for inaction. One concern easily dismissed was the stated fear that it would take up to four years to train Ukrainian pilots. Recent US Air Force experience showed that experienced Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly them in four months. They were hardly starting from scratch after all.

In fact, the speed with which the UkrAF have been able to adopt and operate western provided weapons in much shorter timescales than the providers usually demand is highly embarrassing. They have proven time and again that, when push comes to shove, NATO extended and expensive training practices can be cut down to a minimum. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

The Ukrainians maintaining the F-16 in combat should not prove to be an issue: it is a straightforward, single-engine aircraft, produced in great numbers and fielded in numbers by European nations. Many of the donors have retired these ‘planes and are replacing them with more modern models, and so aircraft and spare parts are plentiful.

The Ukrainians are also though not to need to replicate the NATO approach to air operations, replete with supporting infrastructure and platforms. Kyiv does not need to operate deep into Russian territory. It only needs to keep the Russian air force (VKS) on the back foot in the skies over Ukraine.

The F-16, with its longer-range radars, sensors and missiles, will give the Ukrainian air force a qualitative and quantitative edge and redress the imbalance in the air.  This will, in conjunction with the UkrAF ground based air defence systems, protect both Ukraine’s ground forces and its critical infrastructure, and thereby facilitate the long-awaited counter-offensive.

It will be important, though, to ensure that Ukraine receives, and continues to receive, sufficient supplies of F-16 compatible western missile and ground attack weaponry to sustain them in combat. This will not be cheap, and although current holdings are classified it’s a fair bet that NATO stocks are not exactly buoyant. A ramping up of production and supply chains may be critical.

And then there’s the moral and ethical aspect to be taken into account. Ukraine is clearly, however you may wish to dress it up, fighting a proxy war on behalf of NATO against Russia. They are fighting so that we don’t have to, not yet anyway. Against this background I believe that we are honour and practically bound to give Zelensky all the help he’s been asking for and to give it to him as soon as possible. .

The F-16 decision is a big step in the right direction. The announcement will already be influencing military and political calculations in the Kremlin. As I have written previously, the F-16 will not win the war on its own, but it certainly helps to level the playing field.

There is more good news for Ukraine. Much as the UK decision to send Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine prompted Germany and USA to agree to send their tanks also, so has Mr Biden’s decision to allow F-16s to be donated encouraged others to do the same.

Sweden has now decided to allow Ukrainian pilots to train in flying the JAS39 Gripen fighter jet, another capable aircraft well suited to Ukraine’s needs. The Swedish Ministry of Defense confirmed following an official request from Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov. This is very encouraging.

To repeat yet again what I have said oftentimes before: give Zelensky the tools to finish the job!

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at



Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now

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