Ukraine’s diplomatic push for F-16 fighter jets has gained momentum in recent days with a number of developments suggesting Kyiv’s efforts are beginning to bear fruit, albeit with some way still to go.
Yet it’s undeniable that a topic which not long ago was considered off the table, is now being talked about in a similar way to heavy tanks and long-range missiles – both of which Ukraine has now received – were talked of a few months ago.
Why are F-16s so important?
Ukraine has said F-16s are "four or five times" more effective than Soviet-era jets it currently has.
Yuri Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Defense Minister, recently said Ukraine currently has “nothing to stop” Russian bomber aircraft, such as Tu-22s, which carry long-range guided missiles, such as the Kh-22 and Kalibr, which Russia has been deploying in massive attacks on Ukrainian cities, including nine on Kyiv in May alone.
What does Ukraine want?
In the longer term and if the issue has been resolved in its favour, Ukraine wants between 40 to 50 F-16s in total.
In the shorter term, Kyiv is on a major diplomatic push to build a “coalition of jets” that will keep the issue top of the international agenda and incrementally push to the goal of F-16s in Ukraine.
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Kyiv has tried to persuade allies to supply its military with modern fighter jets, including fourth-generation US-built F-16s as the preferred option of the Ukrainian military.
The West has thus far not agreed due to concerns about “military escalation” plus technical issues, especially the oft-cited need for training of Ukrainian pilots who primarily fly Soviet-era MiG-29s.
What are the latest developments?
There are a few, here’s an overview:
The White House
US President Joe Biden told G7 leaders that Washington will support providing advanced warplanes including F-16s to Ukraine and will back efforts to train Kyiv's pilots, a senior White House official said Friday.
Biden, who is in Japan for the G7 summit, said the United States "will support a joint effort with our allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including F-16s, to further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian Air Force," the official said.
"As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them."
Earlier in the week, the Biden administration has given a signal to European allies that the U.S. would not block them from exporting F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.
Training in Europe
On May 15, the UK publicly said it will start training Ukrainian pilots in the summer and that it was already working with other countries on the possible provision of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak then promised to make the case for air support both at the Council of Europe summit and in subsequent talks with G7 leaders.
“Other countries are involved. I’m talking to those leaders,” Sunak said. “I’ll be doing more of that this week in my international engagements. We’re very keen to build that coalition of countries to give Volodymyr and his people the aircraft support they need.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said during the Zelensky visit that “training of Ukrainian pilots can start now” and invited other countries to also participate in the effort.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo confirmed to domestic media that “the country is prepared to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s.”
His defense ministry, however, said that Belgium has no jets to spare for Kyiv. “We said we can’t deliver planes, but we can train pilots,” Belgian officials said.
The U.S. lawmakers
A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday that was obtained by CNN.
“As a bipartisan group of lawmakers, we view the transfer of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine as essential for providing Kyiv with the air support capability required to fully defend their nation against Russia’s unprovoked, illegal, and brutal invasion, and to make the territorial gains necessary to reclaim their country,” the letter reads.
The U.S. Air Force assessment
An internal U.S. Air Force assessment obtained by Yahoo News has assessed that it would only take four months to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s, a far shorter period than previously cited by Western officials.
The report states that despite two noted difficulties – concern over language ability during training and an unfamiliarity with the complex operating system of F-16s – “given the current skill set demonstrated by the Ukrainian Air Force pilot ... four months is a realistic training timeline.”
Previously, U.S. officials have said it could take up to 18 months to train Ukrainian pilots only familiar with the much simpler and basic Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft to fly F-16s.
This all sounds very positive – so Ukraine could be flying F-16s in four months?
Not so fast. A decision on supplying F-16s is still some way off and there still could be issues with the “four months” timeline.
A former F-16 pilot told Kyiv Post: “I’m hopeful for a future with Ukraine flying F-16s and even more advanced aircraft. But there are still some hurdles to overcome.
“Two of the major issues are training and airfields. They will surely not keep Ukraine from getting the jets, but they may slow down the timeline more than many are anticipating.
“Training combat experienced MiG-29 and Su-27 pilots to fly the aircraft as wingmen certainly is doable in four months,” he said.
“But the employment as part of a two- or four-ship fighting force, with flight leads orchestrating tactics with complex weapons systems in fluid environment takes considerably longer.
“It takes time to grow flight leads—and you need them because they run the show in real-time. “I’ve trained experienced MiG pilots to fly the F-16 and it takes time to get to that level of ability,” he said.
“My other major concern is airfield conditions – F-16s are really designed to be optimal performers in the air, but they are vulnerable to foreign object damage while operating on the ground.
“MiG-29s, for example, have inlet covers and louvered openings to protect the engines while operating from rough and dirty airfields with debris and small rocks.
“The F-16 has no such protection for its single engine and its engine inlet is right above the ground. It’s basically a vacuum cleaner – and one small piece of a screw or a pebble or even ice chunks can destroy an engine immediately. I’ve seen it happen,” he said.
“These are not insurmountable problems, but they have to be considered and planned for.”
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