Why does Ukraine want Western jets—and will it get them?
UTHERE IS Western combat aircraft of the fourth generation have been asking for almost since Russia invaded the country in February 2022. But after January 25, when German chancellor Olaf Scholz finally agreed to export Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine (spurred by a corresponding offer of M1 Abrams tanks from America), demand became more insistent. Ukraine needs American F-16s or F-15s, of which there are a lot and many are being taken out of service. NATO Air Force as deliveries of fifth-generation stealth F-35s gather momentum. On January 30, President Joe Biden announced that America would not supply F-16s. Ukraine will get them anyway?
The request has become urgent. Ukraine is preparing to launch a spring offensive to retake territory, perhaps before the next wave of Russian mobilization. The Russian Air Force has so far failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine, despite having a large advantage in both numbers and capabilities over the Ukrainian Air Force, which relies mainly on Soviet MiG-29s and Su-27s. This was made possible by a well-integrated ground-based air defense system, consisting mainly of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems from the 1970s, and a large number MANPADS (shoulder-launched missiles) supplied NATO members. This allowed the Ukrainian Air Force to fight in the skies and provide much-needed support to the ground forces. But this may change soon.
Ukraine does not confirm how many planes and pilots it has lost, but it certainly feels the effect of a year’s loss. Worse, rocket and drone attacks on vital infrastructure and residential areas inflicted by the Russians during the winter have left Ukraine’s stockpiles of anti-aircraft missile systems dangerously low. Of particular concern is Russia’s use of Iran’s Shahed-136 drone, which can deliver precision strikes against poorly defended targets such as power plants. Most of the ammunition needed to destroy them is many times more expensive than the Shahed itself (which costs about $20,000). Although much more is urgently needed MANPADSUkrainians fear that without F-16s or other fast Western jets, their ability to stop Russia from gaining air superiority is waning.
So why has the West not delivered them yet? One reason is that some leaders, presumably Biden among them, fear that equipping Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets would enable it to strike targets deep in Russian territory and thus be perceived by the Kremlin as an escalation. , which again caused threats of nuclear retaliation. Another reason often cited is that the F-16 is a complex system. Pilots need at least three months of training, and mechanics even more. It also requires significant logistical support and long, smooth runways to get airborne; Ukraine is lacking, although its air force says it is upgrading airfields across the country in anticipation of receiving Western aircraft. But these stripes will immediately become targets for the Russians.
The first justification has been offered almost every time Ukraine has asked the West for new or improved capabilities, especially what might be called offensive rather than defensive. The truth is that the F-16, like tanks, can be both depending on how it is used. In addition, says Justin Bronk, an air force expert at the RUSI think tank, using the F-16 for deep interception in Russia will put it at the mercy of Russian surface-to-air missiles, including the deadly S-400. Probably in Russia there are better ways to hit distant targets.
The second reason for the refusal to deliver aircraft is more serious, but not insurmountable. Training for pilots and ground staff can begin immediately, before the planes leave. Douglas Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think tank, says runways are a problem, but pilots can use dispersed airfields. There could have been many of them, and it would have been harder for the Russians to find them, but the runways would have been shorter and rougher, and so the aircraft and pilot would have been at greater risk. However, if the Ukrainians say they need the F-16s, recent data suggests they have a pretty good idea of how they’ll use them.
Many supporters of Ukraine in the West have come to the conclusion that it is not enough for Ukraine to avoid defeat, but for Russia to lose. The Netherlands has already announced its readiness to send its F-16s. Ukraine says Poland is considering the same. The Pentagon is said to be preparing to approve such exports. As usual, the German Olaf Scholz leads the laggards. If the West believes that, without better fighters, Russia will eventually dominate its airspace, it must provide them: sooner rather than later this time. ■