Geopolitical Insights

ACADEMY SITREP – U.S. Approves Sending F-16s to Ukraine

August 18, 2023
What has Happened:
  • Last evening, the U.S. approved sending F-16 fighter jets from Denmark and the Netherlands to Ukraine as soon as the pilots complete their training.
  • Denmark and the Netherlands (both NATO members) have been leading the efforts to train Ukrainian pilots and support staff on how to fly and maintain the F-16 aircraft.
  • Ukraine has been asking for the U.S. F-16 fighter jets to help the country’s air force counter Russian air superiority.
  • However, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to utilize the F-16s this fall/winter (i.e., more likely in 2024).
Why it Matters:

“The imperative for combat aircraft and a robust pilot pipeline is clear: it comes down to opening an additional domain of attack, while also protecting Ukraine from strikes. So, the U.S. promise to approve the transfer of F-16s from our allies to Ukraine is welcome (albeit too long in coming). What Ukraine needs is a game changer that can transform the calculus of the fight—that game changer is airpower, and the F-16 transfer is a critical element. The F-16 can traverse hundreds of miles on a single mission, shift from one front and/or mission to another in minutes, carry thousands of pounds of ordnance, and use powerful sensors to understand the battlespace in real-time. That is the sort of capability that will allow Ukraine to detect and destroy Russian rocket batteries, offensive drone launch sites, and combat aircraft/missile sites that are holding vast swaths of Ukraine at risk. The aircraft can also provide air defense for cities and close air support for ground forces resulting in a synergistic advantage.”

-General David Deptula

“The U.S. decision to allow the transfer of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine is a significant step in getting another vitally needed warfighting capability into the hands of Ukraine’s military, but it will take a long time to have a real impact on the battlefield. It will not have an impact on the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. The F-16 is an enabler for the type of combined arms warfare that the U.S. military prosecutes and is training Ukraine’s military to execute. Training Ukraine’s pilots in the F-16 will take months and will only start with a handful of pilots whereas Ukraine’s Air Force needs dozens of F-16s to make a difference in the skies above eastern and southern Ukraine. However, it’s a start to pushing back on the Russian military’s air dominance. F-16s provide a true 4th generation plus capability that Ukraine’s pilots do not have with their current aged Soviet era fighters. The integrated avionics, mission systems, and weapons that the F-16 provides are well beyond what Ukraine has today. The Russian Air Force has newer and more advanced aircraft and weapons systems along with far greater numbers. The F-16s will be a good match for Russia’s best aircraft and fighter pilots. However, training a seasoned Ukrainian MIG-29 pilot in an F-16 does not mean that they will be ready to go against Russia’s best fighter pilots on day one. It will take a long time to train and grow the number of F-16 pilots needed along with training the maintenance crews to support them. Part of the reason why Ukraine’s counteroffensive is moving so slowly is because of the air dominance Russia has with its air defense systems, fighter aircraft, and attack helicopters. Over time, properly trained Ukrainian pilots flying F-16s will be able to take out Russian air defenses at range, shoot down attack helicopters, and challenge Russia’s best fighter pilots allowing ground operations to maneuver more freely.  The result will hopefully help break the current stalemate on the ground.”

-General Robert Walsh

“It is a great gesture that will cause Putin to consider the risk and possible next moves. The intent is to encourage Putin to consider a negotiation off-ramp. The key questions related to the announcement are threefold:

  1. When does training start and end?
  2. When will the jets be delivered?
  3. What are the maintenance requirements to sustain the aircraft?
All three questions need to be addressed before the aircraft can be operational.”

-General Mastin Robeson