The formation of a coalition to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine is seen as a significant development that could provide the Ukrainian Air Force with much-needed capabilities.
Britain and the Netherlands intend to create an international alliance to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets and assist in pilot training. While this may appear to be a positive response to Ukraine’s appeals, there are challenges to overcome.
One major challenge is that countries like the UK and Germany do not possess F-16s in their air force arsenals. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s role in the fighter alliance will primarily involve pressuring potential donor countries to contribute.
This situation mirrors the winter debate surrounding the delivery of Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, which required German Chancellor Schulz’s approval for domestic and donated stocks. The producing country must also make concessions for third-party deliveries.
This new international operation shifts the focus to US President Joe Biden. Not only can the United States be the primary supplier of F-16s to Ukraine, but the aircraft is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, an American arms company with extensive experience in producing fighter jets.
Consequently, Washington’s approval is also essential for aid to Ukraine from other countries. However, the White House has not shown willingness on either issue so far. Despite the US providing substantial support to Ukraine throughout the conflict, running a PR campaign for F-16s will prove more challenging than the Leopard tank campaign, given the dependence of many countries on the US for their security.
To convince Washington, Prime Minister Sunak will need to present compelling arguments based on the course of the war thus far. Ukraine’s ability to counter the Russian Aerospace Forces primarily relies on air defense, which has not been able to cover the entire national territory since the conflict’s beginning. Consequently, the Ukrainian Air Force must fill this gap and ensure that Russian fighter pilots feel threatened when entering Ukrainian airspace. This strategy has been relatively successful thus far.
However, during the initial days of the war, the Russian army effectively used electronic warfare to destroy numerous Ukrainian air defense systems.
It took several days for Ukraine to repair the damage and reinstate the anti-aircraft defenses, creating a vulnerable period during which Russian fighter jets could bomb Ukrainian cities.
The Ukrainian Air Force had to assume air defense responsibilities to prevent this, leading to increased risks for their pilots. The losses suffered by the Ukrainian Air Force in the early days of the war were significant.
This summer’s situation poses a similar threat to Ukraine, not because the Russian Armed Forces will attempt to destroy the air defenses again, but because the existing ones are now exhausted. Supporting nations cannot provide Western weapons systems fast enough to address this gap.
While Ukraine currently utilizes the US Patriot interception system, which has been successful, few countries can offer more of this expensive anti-aircraft weapon without weakening their own defense against air strikes.
Although the F-16 is Ukraine’s preferred option, it presents certain challenges, such as its sensitivity to conditions of use. The aircraft’s fragile landing gear requires clean runways, unlike the more versatile MiG-29. Additionally, the roads and highways in Ukraine are not yet suitable for F-16 landings.
However, experts consider this issue secondary, prioritizing the establishment of necessary logistical support, including technician training, suitable hangars, spare parts, and repair materials. These requirements take time, which Ukraine cannot afford.
The F-16’s potential to enhance Ukraine’s air defense capabilities is significant. Equipped with a stealthier radar and the ability to shoot down “fire and forget” missiles, the F-16 provides a means for the Ukrainian military to compensate for its air defense weaknesses while securing its own fighter fleet. Even if Ukraine were to receive older fighter models, the qualitative improvements over existing weapons would be substantial.
The coalition supporting the delivery of F-16s to Ukraine recognizes these advantages and seeks Chancellor Olaf Schulz’s support in pressuring the US. As a key player, Germany should actively participate in the F-16 alliance. The pressure on Chancellor Schulz and the F-16 debate is expected to escalate rapidly, as time is of the essence for Ukraine.