After months of repeatedly insisting that it urgently needs F-16 fighters to bolster its air defense, there are strong signs that Ukraine may finally acquire such a fighter. The United States has agreed to support a European-led initiative to train Ukrainian pilots in handling this fighter.
Ukraine could, therefore, soon acquire F-16s currently in service with the European air forces. However, Europe is not the region with the most F-16s outside the United States.
President Joe Biden informed world leaders at the G7 summit in Japan of his decision to endorse the European training plan. His decision marks a major shift from his administration’s previous positions that Ukraine was not ready to receive the planes or that training would take too long to affect the outcome of the war.
Any transfer of F-16s in service in the European air forces to a third country requires US authorization, which they will now likely receive for any transfer to Ukraine.
Belgium, Denmark and Norway are willing to supply F-16s to Ukraine. Together with the Netherlands, these three countries have about 125 fighters of this type between them. But aside from the United States itself, the region with the largest number of F-16s is not Europe; It’s the Middle East.
The second, third, and fourth largest F-16 fleets belong to the Middle Eastern countries: Israel, Turkey, and Egypt, respectively. Israel alone has some 362 F-16s. By comparison, the Netherlands has some 24 F-16s in service, which Amsterdam will soon retire in favor of fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth jets.
Denmark is estimated to have about 30, and Belgium about 40. Norway had 64 before withdrawing them from service at the end of 2022, replacing them with their shiny new F-35s.
Poland has 48 F-16s but will probably only agree to transfer them when it receives the F-35s and puts them into service instead. Greece has a fleet three times the size, 83 of which are currently being upgraded to the latest Block 72 standard. Athens is unlikely to be willing to transfer those planes as long as it perceives a military threat from Turkey in its region.
Then there’s the Middle East, where there are far more F-16s but far fewer transfer prospects.
Israel was willing to sell Croatia 12 of its used F-16s for $500 million in the late 2010s, but the United States objected, and the deal was canceled. Washington opposed the transfer because Israel had substantially upgraded those planes since acquiring them three decades earlier. The improvements included sophisticated electronic and radar systems.
The United States probably would not object to Israel supplying F-16s to Ukraine. However, given the Croatian precedent, it may first condition its approval on Israel downgrading those planes by stripping them of such sensitive components.
All in all, given Israel’s unwillingness to date to transfer any air defenses that Ukraine has directly requested, it may also not be willing to hand over even older F-16s to Kyiv in the near future. Last year, Israel even refused a US request to transfer to it the outdated US-made MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles it has in stock.
Turkey has some 270 F-16s, which make up the backbone of its air force. Ankara is modernizing its old Block 30 models to keep them in service for a few more years. Since October 2021, it has ordered 40 new modernized F-16 Block 70s from the United States and 79 modernization kits to keep its current fleet operational and up-to-date.
The United States has banned Turkey from buying F-35s after it bought an advanced Russian air defense system. Ankara is now counting on its arms industry to develop its fifth-generation indigenous fighter, the TF-X Kaan. As a result, it is likely to be reluctant to give up or sell any of its F-16s to Kyiv in the near future.
There is also Egypt and its fleet of 220 planes. For decades, Cairo resented that Washington refused to sell it any F-15s. In early 2022, there were signs that Washington was willing to sell F-15s to Egypt. In early 2022, there were signs that that could change soon. However, given its continuing political and strategic ties to Russia, there is little reason to expect Egypt to cede any F-16s to Ukraine.
Cairo showed no intention of parting with its modern fleet of MiG-29M/M2 fighters that it bought from Russia in the 2010s. These fighters would have been ideal for Ukraine early in the war when Kyiv sought out Soviet fighter jets and Russians with whom their pilots were familiar.
Some future US-sponsored deal could convince Egypt to transfer some of its older F-16s, though that remains to be seen and, frankly, unlikely.
Other Middle Eastern countries operate F-16s. Jordan has more than 40, albeit old models. The small island kingdom of Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, even has a modest fleet.
When the United Arab Emirates ordered 80 F-16E/F Desert Falcon Block 60 aircraft in the late 1990s, they became the first country to purchase F-16s more modern than those of the US Air Force, a historic first.
Abu Dhabi is unlikely to transfer these planes to Kyiv, given its close ties to Moscow and its growing inclination to balance its strategic relationship with the United States with its economic and political relations with Russia and China. France recently denied a report that it planned to buy the UAE’s fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters in excellent condition for transfer to Ukraine.
Furthermore, the Emirati withdrawal from a deal to buy 50 F-35s in 2021 may make Abu Dhabi more reluctant to part with its formidable 4.5-generation Desert Falcons.
Iraq has a fleet of 34 planes that Baghdad has increasingly relied on since the war in Ukraine disrupted the supply chain of spare parts for its Russian-made helicopters and planes.
And in the eastern Middle East, Pakistan has more than 80 F-16s, though Islamabad is unlikely to transfer or sell any of these jets to Kyiv for many reasons.
Biden’s decision is certainly welcomed in Kyiv. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States will supply any of its F-16s. And while Ukraine may receive some second-hand F-16s from Europe, the only other region with significant numbers of these fighters is highly unlikely to give Kyiv any of its own.