Tanks for Ukraine once seemed unthinkable. Could fighter jets be next?
The decision by Germany, the United States and others to send main battle tanks to Ukraine goes further than many thought realistic just a few months ago.
Western nations wanting to show unity and repel another Russian offensive have brushed aside fears that more advanced weapons risk provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After tanks were removed from the list, Ukrainian leaders renewed their public appeals for Western warplanes.
“Last year I sent Santa a wish list and so did fighter jets [were] included in that wish list,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told CNN this week.
Western leaders publicly shun discussions about fighter jets flying to Ukraine, and they were not officially on the agenda of a meeting between Ukraine and its allies in Ramstein, Germany last week.
But while the Pentagon press secretary last year stated that the delivery of fighter jets would bring “little increased capability at high risk,” Jon Finer, the US deputy national security adviser, now says they “haven’t ruled out or ruled out any specific systems.” , including the F-16.
The Netherlands also raised some eyebrows last week when their foreign minister, when asked about F-16s, told a parliamentarian that “when it comes to things the Netherlands can deliver, there are no taboos”.
First developed in the 1970s, the F-16 is a highly maneuverable fighter jet capable of carrying six air-to-air or air-to-surface missiles under its wings. It’s no longer bought by the US, but new iterations are still bought by countries like Bahrain and Jordan.
The current manufacturer of the fighter jet, Lockheed Martin, has taken note. Its chief operating officer, Frank St. John, conceded to the Financial Times this week that “there has been a lot of talk about third-party transfers of F-16s” and that a new iteration of the F-16, which is about to enter production, could help meet potential demand.
The Dutch case is instructive for understanding Ukraine’s appeals for the F-16, which can be understood, at least in part, as opportunism to catch planes phasing out from European countries in favor of the newer F-35s before selling them back to someone else .
For the Ukrainian military, an inexorable transition from Soviet weapons to more modern Western equipment began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for eastern separatists.
There is a broad consensus that Ukraine will eventually switch from its current Soviet-era MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-27s to Western jets.
Ukraine’s defense minister “is playing along a bit to warn everyone that this request could come sooner or later,” Peter Wijninga, a retired Dutch Air Force colonel who is now a defense analyst, told CNN.
The Netherlands has 24 F-16s left but plans to get rid of them by next year as they transition to the next-generation F-35s. In 2021, it sold 12 aircraft back to the US for use as trainers.
“Many F-16s are sold to other countries, or in this case delivered to Ukraine,” Wijninga said. “I think they are waiting for the right moment to make a formal request.”
Like the many other Western weapons that have been deployed to date, the F-16 is unlikely to be a silver bullet.
“On their own, I wouldn’t say they are groundbreaking,” said Tim Sweijs, research director at the Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague. “Tanks, troops of course, long-range systems like HIMARS with the ability to take out Russian radar systems – combined with the F-16 – this combination could help Ukraine turn the tide.”
A key hurdle is Russia’s extensive air defenses, said Justin Bronk, a senior airpower researcher at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute.
“The idea that Western warplanes would allow Ukraine to conduct combat air operations over Russian territory in any sort of regular sense is just fantasy,” Bronk said. “The reality is that Western warplanes are also severely constrained by the surface-to-air threat from Russian ground-based air defense systems, just as the Ukrainians are currently.”
The F-16, he said, would be a mostly defensive weapon for the Ukrainian military for the foreseeable future, one that would do better at shooting down Russian missiles and defending against now-rare Russian flights at the front lines.
Even as a weapon to protect ground forces, he said, the F-16 could prove to be a tricky weapon that Ukraine should have in its arsenal.
“Most western air-to-surface munitions for close air support are optimized to be delivered from medium altitude with a target pod, and that’s not really practical near the front lines due to the Russian ground-based air defense threat,” Bronk said.
Both Ukrainian and Russian air defenses mean that after nearly a year of warfare, neither country has achieved air superiority.
“In order to use the F-16 effectively, Ukraine would need to achieve a certain level of air superiority,” Wijninga said. “This means that Ukraine should primarily destroy the Russian S-400 air defense systems, and preferably also S-300.
“Supplying Ukraine with F-16s is not the whole story. The West would have to allow them to gain air superiority over the battlefield.”
Even if Western nations did decide to make F-16s available to Ukraine, donors would have to overcome significant logistical hurdles to get the planes operational.
“We provide them with what we believe they are capable of operating, maintaining and sustaining,” Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said last week. “The F-16 – it’s a very complicated system.”
Ukrainian pilots would first have to be trained to fly the jet.
Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force Command, told CNN that this training could last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the pilot’s experience. Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder confirmed this week that he is “not aware of any Ukrainian pilots currently training in the United States.”
Bronk, the RUSI analyst, said Ukraine has more trained pilot aircraft. “If someone is a qualified and experienced Soviet-type fighter jet pilot, it’s a matter of a few months to train them on something like F-16 aircraft,” he said.
Next, Ukraine would have to determine how and where to operate the fighter jet.
Part of Ukraine’s continued success in flying planes despite the threat of a Russian attack comes from its use of smaller air bases. But, Bronk warned, “most Ukrainian bases, which they use for scattered operations to avoid being hit, are pretty rough in terms of surface and pretty short by Western standards.”
The biggest bottleneck is probably the complex maintenance regulations for the F-16. Until this week, the Biden administration had resisted sending M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine because the turbine-powered machines were complicated to maintain.
Many European countries operate the F-16, including neighboring Poland, meaning serious issues could be dealt with abroad. But daily maintenance would have to be done by technicians in Ukraine.
“These are incredibly complex aircraft, especially from a software perspective,” Bronk said. “And they are designed and built very differently from the MIG-29 and Sukhoi-27 aircraft, which Ukrainian technicians, who are extremely experienced, are used to operating and maintaining.”
Depending on how fast the F-16 would fly, Ukrainian technicians could be trained over several months, or Western contractors could be sent to Ukraine to expose them to a Russian attack.
Like all other decisions to send weapons to Ukraine, a tranche of F-16s would go to politics.
“Political issues are the bigger problem, not logistical issues,” said Dutch defense analyst Wijninga.
Germany doesn’t operate F-16s, but its chancellor has said fighter jets are off the table.
“There will be no fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine. That was made clear very early on, also by the US President,” said Olaf Scholz on Wednesday at a parliamentary debate on the Leopard 2 tanks. “This position has not changed at all and will not change.”
(The Biden administration last year opposed a Polish proposal to send Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.)
F-16s would give Ukraine the ability to attack Russia far behind the front lines with a US-made weapon should it overcome air defenses, even outside of areas internationally recognized as Ukrainian.
“You can fly to Moscow, so to speak, in an airplane and bomb the Kremlin. I don’t think Ukrainians will do that, but there is some risk,” Wijninga said. “And that can actually lead to an escalation that we really don’t want to accept.”
Bronk of RUSI, who thinks this is extremely unlikely, said F-16 deliveries would not be “almost as escalating as people think”.
“Unless they were supplied with something like air-launched cruise missiles, which nobody talks about, the idea that this is some kind of offensive weapon system is just ridiculous,” he said.
As with the German Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the most likely scenario for the F-16, should it come to pass, is some sort of broad European coalition of donors, reducing the political risk for each individual country.
And since the F-16 is an American weapon, it all depends on the US government, which must approve any resale of the aircraft.
White House national security officials say they’ve given Ukraine what it needs, not necessarily what it wants.
“We will be discussing this very carefully as we make all aid decisions with the Ukrainians,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Finer told MSNBC this week. “We will tailor our support decisions based on what we believe they need and what they believe they need for the stage of the fight they are in.”