Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, officials in Kyiv have asked their Western allies to supply the country’s air force with advanced fighter jets such as the F-16. But the US, which makes the fighter jet, has long been reluctant to deliver it or allow other countries that own F-16s to re-export to Ukraine.
US officials worried the jets could be used to strike targets inside Russia, potentially escalating the conflict, and said sending other weapons to Ukraine was a higher priority. But President Biden reversed course on Friday, saying he would allow Ukrainian pilots to train on the F-16 and that the United States would work with other countries to supply the jets.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he called “America’s historic decision” and said it would “greatly improve our military in the air.”
Here’s what we know about how the move will affect Ukraine’s air force.
How strong is the Ukrainian Air Force?
Ukraine has a substantial but aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets and helicopters, a legacy of its history as part of the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Air Force fleet includes fighters such as the MiG-29, bombers and transport and training aircraft, the force’s spokesman Col. Yuriy Ihnat said in an interview on Saturday.
Western military analysts estimate that the combined fleet of Ukraine’s air and ground forces has shrunk by more than a third since the start of the Russian invasion. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of its 145 fixed-wing aircraft and 32 of its 139 helicopters, according to US military sources, among the classified information leaked on social media site Discord in recent months. The document is undated.
The Ukrainian Air Force rarely discloses numbers about its fleet or other details, including incidents of planes being shot down or destroyed. But officials acknowledged some losses during the war and difficulties in repairing and replacing damaged aircraft.
“The new aircraft is from 1991,” Colonel Ihnat said. “They all have to be serviced, repaired and have spare parts.”
Obtaining spare parts has become a problem because many of them are produced only in Russia. Trade in such goods largely ceased after 2014, when Russian-backed forces seized control of eastern Ukraine and parts of the Crimean peninsula, even before a full-scale invasion.
Overall, compared to the Russian Air Force, the Ukrainian Air Force is “technically superior and badly outnumbered.” November report Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, London.
How do Ukrainians use their planes?
While Russian forces disabled Ukrainian air defense systems in the early days of the war, Ukrainian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets engaged in air-to-air combat to repel Russian bombers and provided air defense over much of the country. As stated therein Company report.
The Ukrainian fighter jet inflicted some losses on Russian aircraft, but also “suffered heavy casualties,” the report said. A few friendly-fire casualties occurred in the following days as the Ukrainians scrambled to introduce new air defense systems.
Nevertheless, despite a superior navy, Russia was unable to achieve air supremacy across Ukraine thanks to the strong air defenses of the Ukrainians. Those defenses have been increasingly strengthened as Western countries have contributed some of their most sophisticated weapons.
The Ukrainian Air Force continues combat operations, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are often seen flying near the eastern front line. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have replaced Ukraine with MiG-29s, the first time the country has received one to boost its depleted fleet. Some are unserviceable and will be used for spare parts, Col Ihnat said.
However, Ukrainian jets and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and restrict their operations to avoid entering Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian jets and attack helicopters have developed a tactic of flying low, unleashing unguided rockets from Ukrainian territory and quickly clearing the bank to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Russian aircraft use similar tactics, but have the advantage of superior firepower, which allows them to fire rockets and cruise missiles from greater distances.
“Russian pilots remained alert throughout the war, so even a small number of Western fighters could have a large deterrent effect,” the RUSI Institute report said.
Why do Ukrainians want the F-16?
The Ukrainians don’t want to use the jets only as a deterrent.
A group of Ukrainian parliamentarians told the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month that they need the F-16 because its radar can detect targets on the ground hundreds of miles away, allowing pilots to stay safely in Ukrainian-controlled territory while launching weapons. In Russian-occupied territories.
Col. Ihnat said that in addition to being used for air defense — that is, shooting down incoming Russian missiles and drones — the aircraft could provide cover for Ukrainian troops trying to advance in any counterattack. He noted that it could also be used to intercept Russian planes that have begun launching guided bombs from at least 30 miles from the Ukrainian front line; to protect the sea route that allows Ukrainian grain to leave the country; and to gain air superiority over Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
None of those objectives can be achieved with Ukraine’s current Soviet-designed aircraft, he said.
“The Navy is very old,” Colonel Ihnat said. “We have four to five times less aircraft than the Russians, and the range of aircraft is four to five times less than the Russians.”
How will the F-16 boost Ukraine’s capabilities?
The small, single-engine and highly maneuverable war-bomber has long been a mainstay of the US Air Force, having been used extensively in combat during the 1991 Gulf War, the Balkans, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Air Force Description of Fighter AircraftThe F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and can defend itself with air-to-air missiles while striking ground targets up to 500 miles away.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts have said Ukraine’s air force needs such modern Western fighters and missiles to consistently counter Russian aircraft with deep firepower and to hold its own against the Russian juggernaut, which has relentlessly used bombers. Cities like Mariupol and Bakumud to catch them.
Mr. Even if Biden doesn’t believe so, offering them is part of his thinking about how to protect Ukraine after the current phase of the current war is over.
Ukrainian officials have long said it needs an army equipped and trained to NATO standards with modern aircraft to protect its border with Russia. The decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine suggests that the Biden administration and its allies now believe that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-like ceasefire — Ukraine will need it long-term. The ability to deter an angry, permissive Russia.
Oleksandr Shubko Contributed reporting from Odessa, Ukraine John Ismay from Washington, and David Sanger from Hiroshima, Japan.