Why F-16s Could Be Decisive For Ukraine
Denmark and the Netherlands have jointly declared their intention to dispatch F-16 fighter jets to bolster the Ukrainian Air Force. Once Ukrainian pilots are trained, it may help tip the balance in Kyiv's favor.
This article was updated on Aug. 21, 2023 at 3 p.m.
KYIV — After the U.S. announced it will help train Ukrainians on F-16 fighter jets in late May, Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for the Ukrainian air force command, confidently declared: "Once we have the F-16s, we'll win this war."
With Denmark and the Netherlands jointly declaring their intention to dispatch dozens of F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force (the Netherlands says it will give 42), Kyiv is one major step closer to having the jets in hand.
After the announcement Sunday, Ignat reiterated after his belief that the jets could be the decisive factor. “We won't win immediately, of course," he added. "But the F-16 is capable of changing the course of events, capable of providing us with what we need most today — air superiority in the occupied territories."
Ignat revealed that eight to nine Russian fighter jets currently operate in the occupied regions, deploying aerial bombs and missiles, Kyiv-based Livy Bereg reported. With the F-16s in Ukraine's arsenal, such actions would be significantly hampered, diminishing the Russian capacity to exert air dominance. Ignat reinforced the notion that control over the skies directly translates to success on the ground, thereby making the F-16's strategic value indisputable.
Military experts argue that it may not be as simple as that, but for military pilot instructor and Ukrainian reserve colonel, Roman Svitan, the Western fighters could help cut Ukrainian casualties and even shift the balance in Ukraine's favor during the counteroffensive.
Ukraine has launched a major counteroffensive to expel the Russian forces that have invaded its territory, but the fight has been slow going. Speaking to the independent Russian news site Important Stories, Roman Svitan explained how the F-16s could help Ukraine achieve this objective.
For starters, Ukraine can reach the Azov coast in the southeast under the protection of surface-to-air missile systems and sufficient artillery cover, Svitan explains.
“The ground is as flat as a table," he notes, "so it's easy to pull equipment like artillery there."
Svitan explains how difficult it would be to liberate the Donbas region without aviation: "It would mean navigating ridge after ridge of mountains, rivers, and lakes,” he adds. “The same applies to Crimea, by the way. I think the planes will come in handy for the liberation of Crimea."
June 6 marked a joyful occasion for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After talks with European partners, he announced that his country is set to acquire a "significant number" of F-16 fighter jets.
"I had a happy day,” Zelensky said. “Usually, we have to negotiate for one or two (F-16s) at a time, but now we received a significant offer."
Eliminating enemy resistance is very meticulous work.
These fighters could be used to strengthen the Ukrainian air defense system and fire support to the advancing ground units, according to military experts.
Roman Svitan explains that F-16 fighters operate in three squadrons in support of the offensive. The first squadron is tasked with incapacitating the enemy’s air defenses. The second strikes at fortifications and ground units, while the third squad provides cover.
“Eliminating enemy resistance is very meticulous work,” Svitan says. “It is naturally much easier for ground units to attack in a direction that was already plowed by aviation.”
Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense receive combat training after being deployed in the Donbas.
Nearly impossible to hit
In a war marked by long-distance missile strikes, Svitan believes there should be no problem with sheltering parked F-16s from Russian cruise missiles.
“If we have one squadron stationed at one airfield, then we can spread the planes out so effectively that it will be impossible for a missile to hit them,” he says. “How is a pilot firing an X-101 (cruise missile) from a thousand kilometers away supposed to know where exactly — near which bush — our aircraft is standing?”
He adds that the current location of aircraft is constantly changing as planes are moved around, making them “nearly impossible” to hit with long-range missiles.
The second (and decisive?) phase
Svitan says the F-16s will be deployed once the Ukrainian pilots can operate them, which he believes is a matter of months.
“It takes three to four years to make a pilot out of a person just off the street,” he says. “But Ukraine has several hundred fighter pilots who fly Soviet aircraft like the MiG-29, Su-20, MiG-21, or Czechoslovak L-39. Experienced pilots like these can be retrained in three or four months.”
This time frame probably means that the F-16s will not see action during the initial stage of Ukraine’s counter-offensive. But he thinks the first trained brigade, which Svitan says could mean around 40 aircraft units, might be ready by the end of the summer or the beginning of autumn.
“In time for the second phase of the counter-offensive,” he says.
Denmark and Netherlands
The collaboration between Denmark and the Netherlands also aims to create a broader international coalition, encouraging more nations to contribute to Ukraine's fight for freedom. This initiative aims to enhance Ukraine's Air Force capabilities through a training coalition focused on F-16 fighter jets. The partnership seeks to equip Ukrainian pilots and aviation personnel with the skills required to effectively utilize advanced Western fighter aircraft.
Additionally, Ukraine's plans encompass not only the reception of American F-16s that the U.S. administration confirmed it would send last week, but also the integration of other Western fighters, such as the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen. These modern aircraft will gradually replace the aging Soviet equipment in Ukraine's Air Force. Although this transition poses logistical challenges, it is viewed as an essential step toward fortifying Ukraine's defense capabilities and further enhancing its air superiority.
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