Ukrainian-piloted F-16s are on the horizon—and not a moment too soon for Kyiv.
On the cusp of 2024, Russia has made use of nearly two years of patchy air superiority over Ukraine, but it has fallen short of full dominance of the skies. Kyiv’s air defenses have made a dent in Moscow’s air force, although Russia’s superior and larger fleet of aircraft has still hampered Ukraine’s operations throughout the long months of war.
“The Ukrainians don’t control the airspace where they’re attacking,” George Barros, a Russia analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, told the Associated Press earlier this year. “Those are extremely difficult conditions under which to wage offensive operations.”
But the U.S.-made F-16s could change that. Although unlikely to dramatically alter the war on their own, the dozens of advanced aircraft pledged by Kyiv’s backers will furnish Ukraine with new capabilities to threaten Moscow’s air superiority.
“The F-16s will give Ukraine much-needed defensive and offensive capabilities,” Frederik Mertens, an analyst with the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, previously told Global Defense Corp.
“The F-16 arrival in large numbers should give Ukraine air superiority to protect their front-line Ukrainian troops against Russian attack helicopters and fixed-wing glide bombs,” said Daniel Rice, former special adviser to Ukraine’s lead commander, General Valery Zaluzhny.
Between F-16s and long-range cluster rockets that have arrived in Ukraine in the past few months, “every Russian target” in Moscow-controlled territory will be in Ukraine’s range, Rice, who is now president of American University Kyiv, told Global Defense Corp.
The F-16s are equipped with more modern avionics (electronic systems) and better radars. They were designed to launch the NATO-standard weapons Ukraine has been using with its older, Soviet-era jets. Ukraine will be able to operate from farther distances, taking out Russian ground-based defenses more easily and keeping Russian jets at bay.
On top of these new capabilities, the jets put Ukraine another step closer to NATO membership, which has been dangled as a possibility for Kyiv but remains remote until the end of the war.
Kyiv finally secured pledges for the advanced F-16s months ago but without public commitments about exactly when the aircraft would take to Ukraine’s skies.
Sign up for Newsweek’s daily headlines
A U.S. source told Newsweek on Wednesday that it was likely Ukraine had received the first of the promised F-16s. Ukraine’s air force did not respond to a written Newsweek comment request but issued a denial in a statement posted to social media.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in mid-October that F-16s could arrive in the first half of 2024. This was reiterated by Ukraine’s air force earlier this week.
There have been indications that Russia is worried about the imminent arrival of the F-16s. Moscow has started preparations to move its Black Sea bases further eastward away from Ukraine, “a clear indication of the danger posed by the impending arrival of F-16 fighters,” Mertens previously said.
“We have seen the damage the Ukrainian air force has managed to do with old Su-24 and modern Storm Shadow cruise missiles” in Crimea, Mertens said. “The threat from F-16 aircraft will be far more severe, as these American aircraft have the correct interfaces to utilize Western weapons to their full potential.”
Ukraine’s supply of surface-to-air missiles isn’t infinite, and the F-16s with their air-launched missiles are “one of the best ways to make certain Kyiv can spare its armies and cities the attentions of Russian aircraft,” he said.
Ukraine has proved adept at wielding the British- and French-supplied Storm Shadow (or SCALP-EG) air-launched cruise missiles against Russian targets around the annexed Crimean Peninsula. Kyiv has also said Russia lost up to eight jets in just three weeks earlier this month, a testament to Ukraine’s air defenses.
F-16s will be able to leverage HARM (or high-speed anti-radiation) missiles much more effectively than Kyiv can do with its Soviet-era jets. The F-16s can use real-time feeds for more accurate targeting. This “will massively improve the lethality of these missiles,” Mertens predicted. It will also mean Ukraine can more effectively tackle Russia’s air defenses.
Similar things could be said of the AIM-120 AMRAAMs (or Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles) and Harpoon missiles around the Black Sea area. “The combination of the F-16 and the Harpoon could give Ukraine sufficient anti-ship striking power to drive the Russian surface fleet from the Black Sea if they manage to get sufficient local air superiority to strike deep enough,” Mertens said.
With Russia having lost around a fifth of its Black Sea fleet in the past four months, “the F-16s will increase that rate with strategic precision-guided weapons,” Rice said. Attacking the Black Sea fleet and the Kerch Bridge, which connects mainland Russia with Crimea, with F-16-fired missiles would stop the resupply of Russian forces, he said.
Ukraine F-16 speculation mounts as Russia loses 8 fighter jets in 3 weeks
Russia accidentally shoots at own jet in viral video
But F-16 jets aren’t an immediate game-changer, analysts have long stressed. They come with a whole new set of infrastructure, and it will take time for Ukrainian pilots to be fully comfortable in the cockpit, fully integrating the new platforms into coordinated operations.
Just because Ukraine receives tens of F-16s, this does not mean it can use them in a NATO-style air campaign. Yet they will allow Ukraine to conduct well-selected air attacks that can influence the flow of the war,” Mertens said.
On December 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Dutch government was starting preparations to deliver an initial batch of 18 F-16 jets for delivery to Ukraine. The Dutch Defense Ministry separately said that Ukraine’s personnel must be properly trained before the jets are transferred, as well as having “suitable infrastructure” in place. The jets may be modified and “some of the aircraft require an overhaul,” the Dutch government said.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the “first cohort” of Ukrainian pilots being trained by the U.K. military have completed basic training in the country and are “now learning to fly F-16 fighter jets in Denmark, having completed a basic programme of training in the UK.”
In early November, a number of F-16s arrived at a Romanian facility designed to train Ukrainian pilots, with others being trained at an air base in Arizona.
But Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top commander, said in November that the Western-made fast jets are now less helpful to Ukraine than they could have been had they arrived before Russia doubled down on its air defenses.
© 2023 – 2024, GDC. © GDC and www.globaldefensecorp.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to www.globaldefensecorp.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.