- Ukraine could finally get the F-16 fighter jets it’s been begging for.
- A defense expert told Insider the jets would be vital in Ukraine’s current and future plans.
- But the Center for Strategic and International Studies expert said the delay may have “dragged” the war on.
Ukraine may finally get the American-made F-16 fighter jets it’s been begging for, but there’s one caveat: Kyiv’s forces won’t be getting those prized jets from the US itself, for now.
Still, the jets are vital for Ukraine’s war efforts, defense experts told Insider, giving Kyiv the firepower it needs to bolster its current and future fleets.
“Part of what Ukraine is struggling with is not just a current war in eastern and southern Ukraine, but also a desire not to have the Russians do this again in the foreseeable future,” said Seth G. Jones, senior vice president, Harold Brown chair, and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Ukraine sees the fighter jets as indispensable, Jones said, and it is thinking on a longer-term basis than friendly nations in the West.
“It’s not just trying to retake some limited territory but also having advanced weapons systems so the Russians don’t do this again in a year, or two years, or three years,” Jones told Insider.
“If the US starts to look at victory in Ukraine as, in part, making sure the Russians don’t do this again in the foreseeable future, then aircrafts are a critical part of this,” he added.
Ukraine currently relies on older, Soviet-made jets, including MiG-29s, that have been under a lot of stress and pressure over the past 15 months of the war, Jones said.
“The F-16s are just more advanced aircrafts, both for air-to-air missions and air-to-ground missions.”
Other experts agreed, previously telling Insider that F-16s are the best option for countering Russia’s fleets.
David Deptula, a retired US Air Force lieutenant general who planned the Desert Storm air campaign, said Ukraine can’t practically take out Russian fighter before they get airborne so they’ll need to rely on air-to-air combat.
“The sooner we get fighters into the hands of Ukraine’s combat-experienced fighter pilots, the greater Ukraine’s chances of success,” Deptula said.
Giving Ukraine the firepower it needs in the air is also critical to support its groud campaigns, Jones added, as it would be for any other military power. “The US would never conduct military operations of this type without a joint campaign that is relying on a combination of naval assets, ground-based assets, air-based assets, as well as space and cyber,” Jones said.
Biden’s concerns over sending F-16s may have “dragged” the war on
The debate over whether to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine has lasted months. This week’s news that the UK and Netherlands would work to form an “international coalition” to procure the jets, and the US would authorize its allies to send F-16s and help train pilots marks a stark shift from the stalemate of the spring and winter.
It was a major step forward in getting Ukraine F-16s and appeared to show that Biden and US officials — who have long rejected the idea of giving Kyiv the jets — were either gradually reversing their stances or succumbing to international, NATO, and Congressional pressure.
The shift hints at a changing approach to supporting Ukraine, possibly thanks to its forces’ success on the battlefield.
And while it’s not too-little-too-late, Jones said, Ukraine has needed those jets for almost a year now. Getting them fighter jets as early as possible — similar to Biden’s flip-flopped decision to send US Abrams tanks earlier this year — could have given Ukraine the edge they needed.
“It would have been better to have had them earlier, and it may have dragged the conflict out more than it otherwise needed to be,” Jones said.
The Biden’s administration likely had multiple concerns about sending F-16s. Providing the jets will be a logistical challenge as well.
“You’re selling more than a jet, you’re selling the entire logistics tail that goes with it,” Jones said.
Training pilots on how to operate the modern jets is another issue, Ukrainian pilots recently proved they could master F-16s four times faster than Pentagon officials originally thought.
It’s likely that one of Biden’s biggest concerns was Russian retaliation. But with the Russian military shattered and isolated from the rest of the world, there’s little left for Russian President Vladimir Putin to do other than threaten, Jones said.
“I think at virtually every stage of this war, concerns about escalation and what Russia might do have proven. unfounded and really, there’s not much the Russians can do at this point other than threaten,” Jones said.