Will The F-16s Be Game Changers for Ukraine?


Huge sighs of relief all round – well, except from Putin obviously – as Biden’s administration has finally and at long last given clearance for Denmark and Netherlands to donate their retired F-16s to Ukraine.

Zelensky has been asking for them for well over a year now and the US has finally relented. Why it has taken so long remains a mystery to most, and the claimed fear that their release would lead to an escalation in the conflict just doesn’t wash. The timidity of US politicians is the main reason.

That said, now it’s been decided we need to move on quickly. Not so easy as it sounds, however, because there are a number of barriers to overcome before the F-16s are in action in Ukrainian colours.

First and most important of all is the question of pilots to fly them. Much was made in the past of how long it would take to train the Ukrainians, but of course these pilots will not be staring from scratch. They already know how to fly, so it’s more of a conversion course for them.

The main problem seems to be that only a few of them, possibly only eight, are deemed to have the required level of proficiency in English to take the course. So others are now on their way to the UK to do language training as a prerequisite.

It would appear that the actually flying training will be done in Denmark, and after completion both pilots and ‘planes will make their way to Ukraine. Denmark is thought to have about 30 F-16s due to be replaced by the next generation F-35s, and the Dutch will do likewise with their 24 operational ones, so possibly as many as 50 F-16 initially might equip the Ukrainian air force.

What the UkrAF will get is an aircraft which is considerably more capable than most of its current inventory. It is a single-engine, supersonic, multi-role jet fighter which can carry a variety of ordnance and mission pods. Since first introduced to the US air force in 1978 it has been adopted by some 25 other users around the world. Around 4,600 have been manufactured to date and it has been continuously upgraded throughout its career.

The pilots and airframes are just the tip of the iceberg though. Questions remain as to what weapons and mission modules will be supplied with the aircraft. The west will not be keen for its latest systems to fall into Russian hands when the inevitable losses ensue, so there may be an element of stripping out the most sensitive technologies as we have already seen with main battle tanks supplied to Ukraine.

That said, the weapons that accompany the aircraft will be critical to how effective the Ukrainian F-16 fleet might be. They really need some of the west’s more modern long ranged missiles to negate the current Russian advantage here, but the risk of  Russian capture and analysis is very real.

Then there is the whole infrastructure that has to accompany the airframes – ground crews, maintenance teams, weapons technicians and so on, plus any works necessary to allow the ‘planes to operate from Ukrainian airfields.

The F-16 is a complex aircraft and the ones likely to be donated are quite old. Notwithstanding the urgency of the Ukrainian requirement – they are already at war after all – will take perhaps years to train up the maintainers who can keep the fleet operational.

It is highly likely, therefore, that there will be heavy reliance on civilian contractors to supervise and provide on-the-job training to Ukrainian maintainers in-country, even after all the months of initial training. And those providing such support from the west will no doubt be needed back home to smooth the entry of the F-35s into service.

Plus the aircraft will need to be protected. The F-16 bases which will be set up inside Ukraine will be priority targets for Russian cruise and ballistic missile strikes. Due consideration needs to be given as to how Ukraine might best conserve what will be an important and precious asset.

Against this background it is perhaps unsurprising that the impact of Ukraine’s soon-to-be newest aircraft will not be immediate. Ukraine’s air force spokesman, Yuriy Ihnat, has already admitted that Kyiv would not be able to operate its F-16s this coming autumn and winter. We’ll have to wait until next year to see them in action.

So, whilst undoubtedly welcome, the aircraft are not quite the answer to the maiden’s prayer. What a shame, then, that the US administration wasn’t willing or able to get its act together earlier. The Ukrainians continue to pay for this shameful delay in their own blood.

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



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

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