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F-16s won't fundamentally alter the course of Ukraine War

Biden's about-face raises many questions, but key among them are how effective can the aircraft really be, and what is the endgame?

Analysis | Europe

On Friday, the Biden administration paved the way for Western allies and partners to transfer their stocks of American-made F-16 Fighter jets to Ukraine and added that the U.S. would help train their pilots to fly them. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately hailed the “historic decision” to provide the F-16 Fighting Falcon to Ukraine, adding that it would “greatly enhance our army in the sky.” A sober assessment of the capabilities and limitations of this transfer, however, should temper expectations.

Zelensky had been pleading for Western fighter jets since Russia invaded his country in February 2022, but the U.S. had balked at every step. It is unclear why Biden has chosen now, after 15 months of war, to approve the transfer (which in February he said Ukraine didn't need). The U.S. had long claimed they would not send the fighters because it might inflame Russia too much and that the jets weren’t that necessary to Ukraine’s war effort.

Yet the U.S. had similar concerns about fears of Russian escalation over the delivery of other categories of weapons, like the M777 howitzer, the HIMARs rocket launchers, Patriot Air Defense systems, and M1A1 tanks. Russia protested after the introduction of each, yet took no additional actions. Predictably, Russia on Saturday warned of “colossal risks” to the U.S. if they sent the F-16s, but did not specify what those risks were. In all probability, the Russians will not escalate the war merely because of the presence of F-16s in Ukrainian hands.

But the Biden Administration’s about-face on this issue raises many questions, key among them are how effective can the aircraft be in helping Ukraine win its war. As it turns out, the answer is not encouraging.

For starters, it will take a long time to adequately train Ukrainian pilots and maintenance crews to be able to fly the jets into combat and keep them airworthy. In February, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl said it would take between 18 and 24 months to get pilots and maintenance crews trained, airframes procured, and delivered on site for use.

Yet a leaked Air Force assessment leaked last Thursday suggested the training time might be as few as four months. Even if that were true — and in all likelihood that would get pilots to a minimum capacity to fly the jets but be far from proficient in air-to-air combat — the process to identify F-16s from partner countries, get them airworthy, and then deliver them with the full contingent of maintenance supplies, spare parts, and ammunition, will likely take into 2024. 

There is little likelihood, therefore, the fighters will see combat over the skies of Ukraine this year.

Secondly, while the F-16 is clearly one of the best fourth-generation fighter jets in the world, its primary effectiveness is predicated on being one component in an integrated command and control battle management system of sensors. While the jet is capable of operating on its own, it is far less capable without additional acquisition assets, such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS. To date, there has been no discussion of providing this capability to Ukraine.

Third, the F-16 is not a stealth aircraft. It was first delivered to the active Air Force in 1979, and it is vulnerable to Russian air defenses, such as the S-300 and more advanced S-400 air defense systems. One of the reasons the Ukrainian Air Force has played such a minimal role in this war has been their inability to neutralize the Russian air defense networks. While the F-16 is more capable than the MiG-29s the Ukrainians have been using, it is still vulnerable to attack by Russia’s air defenses. 

Lastly, there is the question of who will provide the aircraft. Beyond any question, the United States has provided the overwhelming lion’s share of support for Ukraine, monetarily and in weapons and ammunition provided. If Washington wants to authorize the use of U.S.-produced F-16s despite the drawbacks, that is a choice it can make. But other wealthy nations, such as those in Europe, should be providing the airframes, not the United States.

The bottom line tactically is that both the West and Ukraine should temper their expectations on what the acquisition of these platforms will do for Ukraine’s war effort. Without question, the F-16 is an excellent airframe and will mark an improvement over existing Ukrainian jets. But there is no reason to expect a dramatic change in Kyiv’s fortunes in the war because of them. Even the 40 to 50 jets Ukraine is reported to be requesting will not fundamentally alter the course of the war. 

The bigger question Americans should be asking of Biden, however, is this: to what end? What does the Administration expect the delivery of the F-16s to accomplish? What do we hope to physically accomplish? What end-state does the president envision for the war, and how would the presence of F-16s improve the chances of success? 

So far as I can determine, these questions haven’t even been asked, much less answered, by administration or Pentagon officials.

Washington should be laser focused on ensuring all its actions work towards the interests of the United States. The core three objectives of the U.S. should be to avoid any escalation of the war beyond the borders of Ukraine, an appropriate shifting of the burden for physical support to Ukraine to our European partners, and under no circumstances can any end-of-war deal include a U.S. or NATO security guarantee to Ukraine. 

It is difficult to see how sending some number of F-16s to Ukraine — which couldn’t be available for use until the beginning of the third year of war — is going to materially change the outcome of the war or facilitate the improvement of American interests in the region. Washington should start to focus far more on concrete means of safeguarding American interests and ending the war, and less on inconsequential weapon deliveries which don’t seem to be part of any coherent strategy. 

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan (June 6, 2016) - U.S. Air Force Airmen prepare an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile for loading onto an F-16 Fighting Falcon via an MHU-83 lift truck. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Deana Heitzman)
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