F-16s might not win Ukraine’s war, but they promise a more equal fight

The writer is a retired RAF Air Marshal who was formerly director-general of Joint Force Development at the UK Ministry of Defence

Many have questioned why President Volodymyr Zelenskyy so determinedly pressed for the supply of F-16 fighter planes to his forces in Ukraine. Can one particular aircraft can make such a difference? The answer, in the case of the F-16, is yes.

In using the G7 summit to announce that the US would help train Ukrainian pilots to fly the aircraft, Joe Biden tied his allies into the decision. In effect, Zelenskyy hijacked the event so that major nations swung in behind Ukraine, just as the Russian military leadership appeared to be turning on itself.

Biden’s initial reticence on F-16 training was the fear of escalation. That the White House has overcome this caution suggests that their risk appetite has increased. Its other concern was that the Ukrainians would not be able to operate these jets effectively. Nato would usually package F-16s with a full range of supporting aircraft that are considered essential to their operations: electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defences and airborne command and control. Without these, critics argued, the planes would be of little use.

The easiest charge to dismiss is that it would take 18 months to train Ukrainian pilots. Recent US Air Force trials proved that even though the F-16 is a high-performance fighter, experienced Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly it in four months.

In fact, Ukrainian forces have integrated western weapons on ex-Soviet aircraft in timescales that should embarrass our own peacetime processes. There are legitimate questions about who does deep maintenance on this western aircraft, but maintaining the F-16 on the frontline should not be an issue: it is a straightforward, single-engine aircraft, produced in great numbers, and so spare parts are plentiful.

The far bigger issue is who sustains the supply of western air-to-air missiles. The US Amraam is very capable but cost an estimated $1mn each. The longer-range European Meteor is even more expensive. While national war stock levels are understandably classified, it is an open secret that most Nato air forces are short. Allies would do well to accelerate their missile supply chains as a matter of urgency.

The lack of supporting air power is harder to remedy. Of course, Ukraine cannot replicate Nato support functions. But it doesn’t have to: Kyiv is not seeking a package of expeditionary air power, operating at range, deep into enemy territory. It only needs to keep the Russian air force (VKS) on the back foot in the skies over Ukraine.

The war has so far revealed that the VKS is restricted to operating in very small formations and only in airspace over land it controls. But it is shielded by extensive surface-to-air missiles and has longer-range air-launched weapons that give it the advantage over Ukrainian equipment.

The F-16, with its longer-range radars, sensors and missiles, would restore the Ukrainian air force’s edge both qualitatively and quantitatively — and push the VKS back into Russia. That will, in turn, protect both Ukraine’s ground forces and its critical infrastructure. But boosting its effectiveness in the absence of wider air power packaging will require imagination.

Integrated air defence systems work far better than those operating in isolation. The Ukrainian air force must link together its western surface-to-air missiles and their advanced radars to provide its pilots with an enhanced picture of the aerial battle. Ground-based electronic warfare systems can do much to degrade Russian radars, and thereby its surface-to-air missile belt. Using rapidly-prototyped drones in reconnaissance and suppressing enemy air defence missions would make Russia’s fighter aircraft more vulnerable. This package of largely ground-based supporting systems — much cheaper than airborne ones — would allow Ukraine to retain the initiative in the air battle.

Finally, there is a moral dimension to consider. Nato would fight Russia by winning the air battle first, and then using air superiority to drive a more efficient land battle. Given the weakness of the VKS, this is no pipe dream. But the west’s constrained donations to date have forced Ukraine to pursue grinding land tactics. We have restricted Kyiv to fighting in a way that we would not, and to take casualties that we would not.

If we want Russia to be defeated, we should reverse this position. The F-16 decision is a big step in the right direction. These jets may not arrive in time to aid Ukraine’s spring offensive, but the announcement will already be influencing military and political calculations in the Kremlin. The F-16 is not a panacea, but a totem of a fairer fight.