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 has gone further than many thought realistic just months ago.
Western nations, showcasing unity and wanting to head off a renewed Russian offensive, have cast aside fears that more advanced weaponry risked provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With tanks checked off the list, Ukrainian leaders have renewed their public appeals for Western fighter jets.
“I sent a wish list card to Santa Claus last year, and fighter jets also [were] including in this wish list,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told CNN this week.
Publicly, Western leaders eschew discussion of fighter jets going 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 last year the delivery of fighter jets was declared by the Pentagon press secretary to bring “little increased capabilities, at high risk,” now Jon Finer, the US Deputy National Security Adviser, says that they have “not ruled in or out any specific systems,” including the F-16.
The Netherlands, too, elicited some raised eyebrows last week, when its foreign minister told a parliamentarian asking about F-16s that “when it comes to things that the Netherlands can supply, there are no taboos.”
The F-16, first developed in the 1970s, 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 purchased by the US, but new iterations are still being purchased by countries like Bahrain and Jordan.
The fighter jet’s current manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has taken note. Its chief operating officer, Frank St. John, acknowledged to the Financial Times this week that there was “a lot of conversation about third party transfer of F-16s,” and that a new iteration of the F-16 just entering production could help satiate potential demand.
The Dutch case is instructive in understanding the Ukrainian appeals for the F-16, which can be understood at least in part as opportunism to get a hold of planes being phased out by European countries in favor of the newer F-35, before they’re sold to someone else.
For the Ukrainian military, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for eastern separatists began an inexorable transition away from Soviet weapons and toward more modern Western equipment.
There is a broad understanding that, in the long term, Ukraine will switch to Western jets from its current, Soviet-era MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27.
Ukraine’s defense minister is “playing the game a bit, in order to warn everyone that this request may be coming sooner than later,” Peter Wijninga, a retired colonel in the Dutch Air Force who is now a defense analyst, told CNN.
The Netherlands has 24 F-16s left, but plans to be rid of them by next year, as it switches over to the next-generation F-35. In 2021, it sold 12 planes back to the US to use as trainers.
“Many F-16s will become available for sale to other countries, or in this case, deliveries to Ukraine,” Wijninga said. “I think that they are waiting for the right moment to move forward a formal request.”
Like the many other Western weapons provided thus far, the F-16 is unlikely to be a magic bullet.
“By themselves, I wouldn’t say they’re game-changing,” Tim Sweijs, director of research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, said. “Tanks, troops of course, longer-range systems such as HIMARS, with the ability to take out Russian radar systems – in combination with the F-16 – that combination could help Ukraine turn the tide.”
A key roadblock is Russia’s extensive air defenses, said Justin Bronk, a senior airpower researcher at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute.
“The idea that Western fighter aircraft would allow Ukraine to operate combat air sorties over Russian territory in any sort of regular sense is just fantasy,” Bronk said. “The reality is that Western fighter aircraft will also be very constrained by the surface-to-air threat by Russian ground-based air defense systems, just as the Ukrainians currently are.”
The F-16, he said, would for the foreseeable future be a mostly defensive weapon for the Ukrainian military, making it better at shooting down Russian missiles and defending against any now-rare Russian flights past the frontlines.
Even as a weapon to protect ground troops, he said, the F-16 could prove a tricky weapon for Ukraine to have in its arsenal.
“Most Western air-to-ground munitions for close air support are optimized for being delivered from medium altitude, with a targeting pod, and that’s not really viable near the frontlines because of the Russian ground-based air-defense threat,” Bronk said.
Both Ukraine and Russia’s significant anti-air defenses mean that, almost a year into the war, neither country has gained air superiority.
“To be able to employ the F-16 effectively, Ukraine would have to achieve some degree of air superiority,” Wijninga said. “This means Ukraine would have to destroy Russian S-400 air defense systems first and foremost, and preferably S-300 too.
“Supplying Ukraine with F-16s is not the whole story. The west would have to enable them to achieve air superiority over the battlefield.”
Even if Western nations decided to provide Ukraine with F-16s, donors would have to overcome significant logistical hurdles to get the planes operational.
“We are providing them what we think they are capable of operating, maintaining, and sustaining,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said last week. “The F-16 – this is a very complicated system.”
Ukrainian pilots would first need to be trained to fly the jet.
Yurii Ihnat, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Force Command, told CNN that that training could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the pilot’s experience. The Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, confirmed this week that he was “not aware of any Ukrainian pilots currently training in the United States.”
Bronk, the RUSI analyst, said that Ukraine has more trained pilots aircraft. “If someone is a qualified and experienced fighter jet pilot on Soviet types, it’s a matter of a few months to get them trained proficient with something like F-16s,” he said.
Next, Ukraine would have to determine how and where it operates the fighter jet.
Part of Ukraine’s continued success in flying airplanes despite the threat of Russian attack stems from its use of smaller airbases. But, Bronk cautioned, “most Ukrainian bases that they’re using for dispersed operations to avoid being hit are, by Western standards, quite rough in terms of surface, and reasonably short.”
The biggest bottleneck may be the complex maintenance regimes for the F-16. Until this week, the Biden Administration had resisted sending M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, because of the complexity of maintaining the turbine-powered machines.
Many European countries operate the F-16, including neighboring Poland, meaning that deep serious issues could be dealt with abroad. But day-to-day maintenance would have to be carried out by technicians in Ukraine.
“These are incredibly complex aircraft, particularly from a software point of view,” Bronk said. “And they are designed and built in a very different way from the MIG-29 and Sukhoi-27 aircraft that Ukrainian technicians, who are extremely skilled, are used to operating and maintaining.”
Depending on how fast the F-16 would be flying, Ukrainian technicians could be trained over the course of several months, or Western contractors could be sent to Ukraine, putting them at risk of Russian attack.
Like all other decisions to send weapons to Ukraine, a tranche of F-16s would come down to the politics.
“Political issues are the bigger problem, not logistical issues,” the Dutch defense analyst Wijninga said.
Germany does not operate F-16s, but its Chancellor has nonetheless said fighter jets are off the table.
“There will be no fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine. This was made clear very early, including from the US President,” Olaf Scholz said during a parliamentary debate on the Leopard 2 tanks on Wednesday. “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 capability, should it overcome air defenses, to strike Russia with an American-made weapon far behind the frontlines, even outside of territory considered internationally to be Ukrainian.
“With an aircraft you can actually, as a matter of speaking, fly to Moscow and bomb the Kremlin. I don’t think the Ukrainians will do that, but there’s a risk involved,” Wijninga said. “And that may actually lead to an escalation that we are not really willing to accept.”
RUSI’s Bronk, who sees that as extremely unlikely, said the delivery of F-16s would not be “nearly as escalatory as people think.”
“Unless they were supplied with something like air-launched cruise missiles, which nobody is discussing, the idea that these are some sort of offensive weapons system is just ridiculous,” he said.
As with the German Leopard 2 battle tanks, the most likely scenario for the F-16, should it come to it, is some sort of broad European coalition of donors, lessening the political risk for any one country.
And because the F-16 is an American weapon, it will all come down to the say-so of the US government, which needs to sign off on any re-sale of the plane.
White House national security officials say they have given Ukraine what it needs, not necessarily what it wants.
“We will be discussing this very carefully, as we do all assistance decisions with the Ukrainians,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Finer told MSNBC this week. “We’ll be tailoring our assistance decisions to what we believe they need and what they believe they need for the phase of the fight that they’re in.”