When President Joe Biden approved the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine from its allies and U.S. training of Ukrainian pilots, no one could say definitively when these vital aircraft would be appearing above the battlefield in Ukrainian skies.
“The moment at which the F-16s are going to make the biggest difference isn’t a time,” said Brynn Tannehill, a technical analyst with the RAND Corporation. “It’s a confluence of conditions.”
“The moment that a JASSM [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile] fired from an F-16 is capable of isolating Crimea, that’s the moment when the F-16s are needed most.” Brynn Tannehill, RAND Corporation technical analyst said.
Currently, Russia controls a swathe of territory in southern Ukraine running all the way from the Dnieper River in the west to the Russian border in the east. This land bridge of occupied territory gives Russia a readily accessible resupply route to occupied Crimea. However, if Ukrainian forces prove capable of severing this land bridge by pushing south toward the Sea of Azov, then Russia’s most reliable remaining option for provisioning the notoriously dry peninsula will be the Kerch Strait Bridge.
“Ukraine has said that it intends to take back Crimea, but that it would prefer to do so bloodlessly,” Tannehill explained. “The moment that a JASSM [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile] fired from an F-16 is capable of isolating Crimea, that’s the moment when the F-16s are needed most.”
Before that moment arrives, however, a complex set of preparations must be completed in order to ensure that the Ukrainian military, equipped with its new hand-me-down planes, is prepared to meet it. Pilots must be trained, runways must be improved, logistical chains must be established, and some combination of Western nations must agree to actually part with a substantial portion of their F-16 inventories.
“Even if it only take four months or so to re-train a pilot who is experienced operating a MiG-29 or a Su-27 to transition over to the F-16, it could take more time than that before you have a maintenance team in place that’s capable of servicing the aircraft so that you don’t have to put it on a flatbed and send it to Poland every time it requires basic repairs.” Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said.
While a host of countries including the U.S., the Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway have been discussed as potential F-16 donor states, no firm pledges for aircraft delivery have yet been made by any of them.
Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, who remains well-connected in Kyiv, told Newsweek that he expects the first F-16s to begin arriving “in a few months, by the end of this year.”
However, Tannehill cautions that it might be longer still before Ukraine is actually ready to use the aircraft to their full potential.
“Even if it only take four months or so to re-train a pilot who is experienced operating a MiG-29 or a Su-27 to transition over to the F-16,” she explained, “it could take more time than that before you have a maintenance team in place that’s capable of servicing the aircraft so that you don’t have to put it on a flatbed and send it to Poland every time it requires basic repairs.”
“The F-16 goes through a lot of consumables, and so a necessary step to keeping them in the air is the accumulation of a ‘parts mountain’ on the ground that allows you to swap out basic things that need to be replaced regularly,” she explained. “The rate-determining step is not pilot training. The rate-determining step is on the maintenance side, and although the Ukrainians could speed up that process by bringing in contractors to help, I would expect that it will be early next year before everything is in place.”
“The F-16s provide a guarantee that Ukrainian airspace will remain contested.”
Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow, Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies
Another critical factor contributing to the F-16s’ ultimate utility on the battlefield is the provision of munitions. The JASSM missiles that Tannehill mentioned as being critical for any potential future operations aimed at disabling the Kerch Strait Bridge or driving the Russian navy from its port in Sevastopol have a range of 370 kilometers. Without JASSMs, the F-16s would still be of use to Ukraine, but their potential would be limited largely to providing an extra layer of air defense against cruise missiles.
Viewed from Kyiv, a city that remains vulnerable to Russian missile and drone attacks, this capability is not insignificant.
“The F-16s provide a guarantee that Ukrainian airspace will remain contested,” Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek. “The planes will allow us to detect a higher quantity of incoming targets at a greater range and to shoot them down more reliably than is currently possible.”
“They will also allow us to conserve munitions for our existing air defense systems,” he added.
While Tannehill and Bielieskov both expect the provision of F-16s to improve Ukraine’s capabilities on the battlefield, they also stress that the addition of a few dozen second-hand Western aircraft will not result in Ukraine achieving air superiority along the war’s front lines, let alone air dominance over Russian cities.
Although Biden announced that he had received “flat assurances” from Zelensky that Western aircraft would not be used “to go into Russian geographic territory,” it is more likely that it is Russian air defense capabilities, rather than political agreements between Kyiv and Washington, which will ensure that Russian airspace remains safely devoid of F-16s.
“Nobody in Ukraine treats F-16s as a silver bullet that will suddenly end the war,” Bielieskov said, “but the aircraft give our military necessary capabilities which could at least help to shorten it.”
Despite the best predictions of aviation warfare experts, exactly how the Ukrainian military will put its F-16s to use remains a closely guarded secret. Throughout the war, Ukraine has demonstrated a knack for creatively adapting the limited resources available to it in order to achieve military feats that include the successful defense of Kyiv, the liberation of Kharkiv region and Kherson city, multiple drone strikes on military targets in both mainland Russia and in occupied Crimea, and the partial disabling of the Kerch Strait Bridge.
Asked when he expected the F-16s to arrive in Ukraine and how they might be put to use, Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yurii Ihnat would only say, “the sooner the better, they will help a lot, mark my words.”
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