By Altaf Moti
The provision of F-16 fighters to Ukraine is a controversial and complex issue that involves the interests and concerns of various actors, such as the United States, Ukraine, Russia, NATO and other European countries. Here, I will analyze the reasons, implications and challenges of this decision from different perspectives.
Ukraine has been engaged in a war with Russia-backed separatists in its eastern regions since 2014, and has faced increasing aerial attacks from Russian jets and drones in recent months. Ukraine has long sought advanced fighter jets from its Western allies to improve its air force, which is largely composed of outdated Soviet-era aircraft.
The US has provided Ukraine with other military assistance, such as anti-tank missiles, radars, drones and training, but has been reluctant to provide offensive weapons such as fighter jets until recently.
The US decision to allow its allies to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters was announced by President Biden at the G7 summit in Japan in May 2023, after he informed his counterparts of his intention. The US said it would also train Ukrainian pilots to fly the jets and allocate $100 million for this purpose. The US said the decision was part of its “long-term commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense” and a response to the changing situation on the ground. The US also said it would work with its allies to determine when, who and how many planes would be delivered to Ukraine.
Some of the potential allies that could supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters are Poland, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Romania which have publicly expressed their readiness or interest in doing so. These countries have surplus or older F-16s that they could transfer to Ukraine with US approval. However, the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin has also offered to sell new and used F-16s to Ukraine, upgraded to the latest Block 70/72 “Viper” standard. The F-16 Viper is a fourth-generation multirole fighter jet that can perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, and has advanced avionics, sensors, weapons and electronic warfare systems.
The provision of F-16 fighters to Ukraine could have significant implications for the security and stability of the region, as well as for the relations between the involved parties. On one hand, the provision of F-16 fighters could boost Ukraine’s confidence and morale and improve its ability to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It could also signal a strong message of solidarity and support from the US and its allies to Ukraine, and a clear warning to Russia that further aggression would not be tolerated.
On the other hand, the provision of F-16 fighters could provoke a negative reaction from Russia, which considers Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence and views any Western military involvement as a threat to its security and interests. Russia has already condemned the US decision as a “scenario of escalation” and warned that countries that supply F-16s to Ukraine would run “enormous risks”. Russia could respond by increasing its military presence and activities near Ukraine’s borders or by providing more advanced weapons and support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The provision of F-16 fighters could also have implications for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine peacefully. The US and its allies have been engaged in negotiations with Russia through various formats, such as the Normandy Four (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine), the Minsk Group (OSCE, Russia and Ukraine) and bilateral talks. The provision of F-16 fighters could either create more pressure on Russia to comply with the existing agreements and ceasefires, or undermine the trust and dialogue between the parties and reduce the chances of finding a political solution.
Another question that arises from the provision of F-16 fighters to Ukraine is how they would compare to the Russian jets that they could face in a potential air combat. Russia has a large and modern air force that includes various types of fighter jets, such as the Su-27, Su-30, Su-34, Su-35 and Su-57. Among them, the Su-35 is considered as Russia’s most advanced and capable fourth-generation fighter jet, and has been deployed near Ukraine’s borders in recent years. The Su-35 is a twin-engine, single-seat, multirole fighter that can perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, and has a maximum speed of Mach 2.25, a range of 3,600 km and a thrust vectoring system that enhances its maneuverability.
Some experts have argued that the Su-35 is superior to the F-16 in terms of speed, range, payload and agility and that it could pose a serious challenge to Ukraine’s air force if a conflict escalates. However, others have disputed this claim and pointed out several disadvantages and weaknesses of the Su-35 compared to the F-16. For instance, the Su-35 does not have an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which gives the F-16 a better situational awareness and detection capability. The Su-35 is also larger and more visible than the F-16, making it easier to target by long-range missiles. The Su-35 also lacks stealth features and electronic warfare systems that could reduce its vulnerability to enemy radars and countermeasures.
Moreover, the performance of a fighter jet depends not only on its technical specifications, but also on other factors such as pilot training, tactics, coordination, maintenance and support. In this regard, the F-16 has an edge over the Su-35, as it has been extensively used and tested by the US and its allies in various combat scenarios and environments for decades. The F-16 also benefits from the experience and expertise of the US Air Force and NATO in training, operating and integrating fighter jets. The Su-35, on the other hand, has not seen much combat action and has limited operational experience with other Russian aircraft or allies. The Su-35 also suffers from reliability and quality issues that affect its availability and readiness.
Therefore, it is not clear whether Russia has the capability to counter F-16 fighters effectively, as it would depend on many variables and circumstances that are hard to predict. However, based on the available information and analysis, it seems that the F-16 has some advantages over the Su-35 that could make a difference in a potential air confrontation.
The provision of F-16 fighters to Ukraine also faces several challenges that could affect its feasibility and effectiveness. One challenge is the availability and affordability of the jets. The US has not specified how many F-16s it would allow its allies to supply to Ukraine nor how much it would cost. The price of a new F-16 Viper is estimated at around $70 million per unit, while a used one could cost around $20 million. Ukraine’s defense budget for 2023 is about $5.5 billion, which means it could only afford a few dozen F-16s at most, unless it receives additional financial assistance from its allies or other sources.
Another challenge is the compatibility and interoperability of the jets. The F-16s that Ukraine could receive from its allies are likely to have different configurations, specifications and capabilities, depending on their origin, age and upgrades. This could create difficulties for Ukraine to maintain, operate and integrate them into its existing air force structure and systems. Moreover, the F-16s would have to work with other types of aircrafts that Ukraine has or plans to acquire, such as the MiG-29s that Poland and Slovakia have handed over, or the JF-17s that Pakistan has offered to sell. The F-16s would also have to coordinate with other air defense assets that Ukraine has received from the US and its allies, such as radars, drones and missiles.
A third challenge is the training and readiness of the pilots. The US has said it would train Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16s, but it is not clear how long and how intensive this process would be. The F-16 is a sophisticated and complex aircraft that requires a high level of skill and experience to operate effectively. Ukraine’s pilots are mostly trained on Soviet-era aircraft, which have different characteristics and systems than the F-16s. Moreover, Ukraine’s pilots have limited combat experience and exposure to modern air warfare scenarios, especially against a technologically superior adversary like Russia. Therefore, the provision of F-16s could also require a comprehensive and sustained program of education, simulation and exercises for the Ukrainian pilots to become proficient and confident with the jets.
In short, the provision of F-16 fighters to Ukraine is a significant and controversial decision that reflects the US’s commitment to support Ukraine’s self-defense and deter Russia’s aggression. However, the decision also entails various implications and challenges that could affect its outcome and impact.