After months of waffling and amid increasingly desperate pleas from Kyiv, the White House has signaled to European allies in recent weeks that the US would allow them to export F-16 advanced fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force, a move that could be a potential game changer on the battlefields of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ukraine has been calling on its Western allies to provide F-16s since late last year. Despite fears of escalation, an agreement on their delivery looks closer than ever. The United Kingdom promised to work towards the constitution of an “international coalition” to help Kyiv obtain the jet fighters. The Netherlands has already offered to be a supplier, while the UK’s Royal Air Force and France have offered to train Ukrainian pilots on Western planes.
The F-16 is an American-designed fighter used primarily for air combat but can also be used as a tactical bomber, ground attack aircraft, and as part of an air defense umbrella.
The US has told its allies it will back a joint international effort to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 and other modern fighter jets, marking a significant boost to Western support for Kyiv as it prepares a major counter-offensive.
Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted: “I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition. This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima.”
An international training program, to begin soon in Europe, would be a prerequisite to the transfer of F-16s to Kyiv. Yegor Cherniev, the deputy chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s national security committee, said F-16s could be in operation within four months of the start of training.
“The integration of avionics, weapons systems, and weapons are decades ahead of what they’re flying now,” said retired General Philip M. Breedlove, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. “There will be an increased capability, increased radar range, increased weapons range, etc. But this is not the be-all to end-all.”
If Ukrainians are not thoroughly trained in Western tactics, “You’re not going to realize any of the benefits of having a real four-plus generation aircraft,” said Breedlove, a former F-16 pilot. “If you take an F-16 and fly it and use it like a MiG-29, you’re just going have a hotrod MiG-29, and that’s it.”
Poland and Slovakia are providing Ukraine with MiG-29s from their inventories. But there is no debate the F-16 will mark a quantum leap over the planes currently in Ukraine’s inventory.
Ukrainian Armed Forces have thus far relied heavily on HIMARS rockets, armor, artillery, and British Storm Shadow missiles to counter Russian missile and drone attacks. The White House had held back from facilitating Ukraine’s acquisition of F-16s because it was worried that supplying Ukraine with the planes risked escalation with Russia and because of concerns the aircraft would not survive Russia’s formidable air defenses. Much of this of course depends on which variants of the F-16 the Ukrainians end up flying, recalling the aircraft has been constantly upgraded (13 main production models with dozens of additional specialized versions for specific countries and missions) since its introduction with the US Air Force in 1978.