How the F-16s could impact the Ukraine War
Dhe dogfight over the Ukraine has so far stood out above all because of the reluctance on both sides: neither Ukraine nor Russia are able to achieve air superiority. Whether the looming handover of American-made F-16 fighter jets will change that is unclear.
The influence of the F-16 depends on the intention Kyiv use them, says Kelly Grieco, who studies modern air combat and American foreign policy for the Stimson Center think tank in Washington DC. Ukraine has given different information on this. There are no firm commitments from the West anyway. In what number the F-16 should be delivered and by whom, what version and what armament they are equipped with is open.
However, one thing is certain, says Grieco: “They will not be a game changer.” Ukraine is hoping for better protection against Russian missile and drone attacks in conjunction with ground-based defense systems. Depending on the armament, the aircraft could also be used to support ground forces.
The F-16s are unlikely to be ready in time for Ukraine’s imminent offensive. According to US Air Force civilian chief Frank Kendall, it will be “several months at best” before Ukraine fighter planes receives. A Pentagon spokesman said the training, to be held in Europe, could begin “within weeks or months.” The US Air Force estimates that Ukrainians could learn to operate the F-16 in four months, instead of the 18 previously thought.
Too few anti-aircraft missiles
Even if the F-16s arrive in time, they’re unlikely to prove decisive in the counteroffensive, says Kelly Grieco. Ukraine could use the planes against Russian logistics and command posts behind the lines, which would make it difficult for the Russians to respond quickly to a Ukrainian advance. But there are also other options with less logistical effort, such as the long-range combat drones recently announced by Great Britain.
Basically, the “feasibility and effectiveness” of F-16 missions in offensive operations is likely to reach its limits, says Grieco. It is a so-called 4th generation aircraft, which is technically less advanced than 5th generation models currently used by the United States, among others. The F-16 was introduced during the Carter administration and has been upgraded several times since then, but it doesn’t have stealth technology, Grieco said. That makes them extremely vulnerable to Russian air defense: “If the Russians have one thing, it’s good air defense systems.”
The fact that air combat in the Ukraine war has not played a decisive role so far is due to effective air defense systems that pose a threat to the pilots. The Russian air force, which is clearly superior on paper, is thus forced to fly its missions over Ukraine at low altitudes – there, however, they can be targeted by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft guided missiles (MANPADS). Moscow therefore conducts many airstrikes with missiles from its own airspace. But even Ukrainian fighter jets can do little against modern Russian defense systems like the S-400. “Either side is able to gain air superiority, but both manage to deny it to the other side,” says Kelly.
However, according to punctured Pentagon papers, Ukraine’s anti-aircraft missile inventory appears to be dwindling dangerously. The problem is that the West doesn’t have enough of it either, says Grieco. From this derives Kiev’s strongest argument in favor of the F-16: They can intercept enemy aircraft, cruise missiles or drones from a distance.
Germany can also help
Another advantage results from the high availability. Several NATO countries have the F-16 in their rosters or are converting to more modern aircraft. So there is no sign of a shortage of spare parts. This could be conducive to long-term support of the Ukrainian Air Force, even after the war.
On the other hand, there are logistical and maintenance challenges for Ukraine, explains Grieco. The F-16 is a very specific aircraft. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, training maintenance personnel can take months or years, depending on the level desired. According to analysts, once trained, they are dependent on special equipment and a “massive” logistical organization. The US Air Force therefore requires around 16 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight of an F-16.
Germany, which does not own an F-16 itself, could at least make a contribution here. “Nations that do not have an F-16 can provide more marginal support here, such as infrastructure or training,” said Air Force Inspector Ingo Gerhartz to the “Tagesspiegel”. He also pointed out that aircraft can be used interoperably within NATO – the armament of a German Eurofighter can therefore be transferred to an F-16 without any problems.