After months of deliberation, the United States, NATO, and the European Union have come to an agreement of sorts regarding the provision of US-manufactured F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine.
According to some reports, the training of pilots has begun in at least one NATO nation (Poland), while others (Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands) have indicated they are prepared to do the same. However, neither the US nor any NATO country has committed to providing actual F-16 airframes, which means from a combat capability perspective, until such aircraft arrive in Ukraine, this entire debate is much ado about nothing. The training of Ukrainian aircrews will take months, meaning the earliest one could expect an F-16 flown by a Ukrainian pilot to appear in the skies over Ukraine would be sometime in early 2024.
Even if the F-16 does eventually enter combat on the side of Ukraine, the notion that this aircraft, whose basic design dates tothe 1970’s, will provide Ukraine with some sort of game-changing advantage is absurd.
Ukraine will not be receiving anything close to the most modern, capable variant of the F-16, but rather airframes which have exceeded their operational life span for the air forces of the doner nation – in short, old aircraft with severe maintenance issues and limited performance. In the hands of an experienced pilot, one could expect a modicum of combat performance in a limited number of engagement profiles, including air-to-air combat and close air support.
But the Ukrainian pilots who will be flying these aircraft will be the furthest thing from experienced F-16 pilots that one can imagine. They will have minimal experience in testing the performance capabilities of the F-16.
Moreover, if Ukraine were to cross-train their most experienced pilots, those who have flown the MIG-29 or SU-27, then the issue of performance becomes even more acute—the F-16 is a completely different aircraft from an avionics perspective, and pilots whose muscle memory is tied to Soviet-era aircraft will have a distinct disadvantage over less experienced pilots who are starting from scratch.
The Russian military has been preparing to fight against the F-16 since the 1970’s, back when the aircraft was considered cutting edge and was being matched up against Soviet aircraft and air defense capabilities.
More than 40 years have passed since the first F-16 flew in the skies over Europe, and since that time Soviet – and later, Russian – specialists in aerial combat have been singularly focused on how to defeat the F-16 in combat. While a new F-16, outfitted with the best weaponry and avionics America possesses and flown by an experienced pilot, might provide the Russians with a few surprises, the older F-16, flown by Ukrainian pilots with limited experience on the airframe, will not. In short, the Russians will easily shoot down any Ukrainian F-16 that attempts to engage Russia in air-to-air combat or provide close air support for Ukrainian troops.
And then there is the issue of maintenance – the F-16 is a fickle aircraft under the best conditions, requiring constant maintenance to maintain operational capability. Ukraine will be receiving old F-16 aircraft which have surpassed their optimal operational life span. These aircraft will require even more maintenance to be made air-worthy, a skill set that Ukraine does not currently possess, nor will it ever possess, given the extensive time needed to train aircraft maintenance personnel familiar with the airframe, engine, and avionics.
The Ukrainian air force already flies the SU-27, an aircraft will similar or superior capabilities than the F-16. The Russian air force and air defense network has negated the ability of the Ukrainian SU-27’s to have any meaningful impact on the battlefield. The decision to provide Ukraine with F-16 aircraft is a purely political one, designed to create the impression that the US and its European allies are doing everything possible to give Ukraine a fighting chance in its ongoing conflict with Russia.
But the F-16 is no magic weapon—when it does appear over Ukraine, it will not have any meaningful impact on the battlefield itself.
Indeed, its appearance could be a problem for Ukraine, given the hype surrounding the aircraft. Ukraine may attempt combat operations it is not prepared for under the misguided belief that the F-16 will, in and of itself, held turn the tide of the battle. But it will not. Far from a magic weapon, the F-16 is little more than a poison pill which will result in the deaths of many more Ukrainian aircrew and soldiers as Ukraine continues to wage a war against Russia it cannot win.