Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began more than a year ago, the Ukrainian authorities have called on their Western allies to supply advanced warplanes, such as the F-16to the air force. However, the United States, the maker of that fighter jet, was long reluctant to supply it or allow other countries with F-16 models to re-export them to Ukraine.
US officials were concerned that the planes could be used to attack targets inside Russia, potentially escalating the conflict, and said sending other types of weapons to Ukraine was a higher priority. However, President Joe Biden changed his mind on Friday when he informed allies that he was going to allow Ukrainian pilots to train to fly the F-16s and that the United States will work with other countries to supply the planes to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he called a “historic decision by the United States” with open arms, saying that it will “immeasurably strengthen our army in the sky.”
Here’s what we know about how Biden’s move could affect Ukraine’s air force.
How strong is the Ukrainian air force?
Ukraine inherited a sizeable but aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets and helicopters, a legacy of its history as part of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian air force contingent includes fighters such as the MiG-29, bombers and transport and training planes, Colonel Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the force, said in an interview on Saturday.
US and European military analysts estimate that more than a third of the combined Ukrainian air and ground forces fleet has been depleted since the Russian invasion began. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of its 145 fixed-wing aircraft and 32 of 139 helicopters, according to US military information that was among classified material leaked on Discord, the social media platform, in recent months. The document was undated.
The Ukrainian air force rarely discloses figures regarding its fleet or other details, including incidents of aircraft being shot down or otherwise destroyed. However, the authorities have acknowledged some casualties in the course of the war, as well as difficulties with the repair and replacement of damaged planes.
“The newest plane is from 1991,” Ihnat said. “And they all have to be serviced, repaired and get parts.”
Obtaining spare parts has become a problem, as Russia is the sole producer of many of these parts. Even before the full-scale invasion, trade in these items had largely ceased after 2014, when Kremlin-backed forces seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Overall, the Ukrainian air forces are “technologically outmatched and greatly outnumbered” compared to the Russians, according to a report. published report in November from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
How come the Ukrainian forces use their planes?
When Russian forces blocked Ukrainian air defense systems in the early days of the war, Ukrainian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters provided air defense over most of the country, engaging in air-to-air engagements to thwart the Russian forces. Russian bombing, according to the british institute report.
The Ukrainian fighters inflicted some casualties on the Russian planes, but “they also suffered heavy losses,” according to the report. The Ukrainians suffered casualties in a few friendly fire incidents in the days that followed as they rushed to introduce new air defense systems.
Despite boasting a superior fleet, however, Russia has failed to achieve air supremacy over all of Ukraine, thanks to the country’s robust air defenses. Those defenses have grown ever stronger as Western nations contributed some of their most sophisticated weapons.
The Ukrainian air force continues to carry out combat missions, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are often seen flying near the eastern front. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have supplied Ukraine with spare MiG-29 fighters, the first transfers the country has received to bolster its depleted fleet. According to Colonel Ihnat, some are not usable and will go to spare parts.
However, Ukrainian jets and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and limit their actions so as not to enter Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian attack planes and helicopters have developed the tactic of flying low, launching unguided rockets from Ukrainian territory and immediately turning back to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Russian planes use similar tactics, but have the advantage of superior firepower that allows them to fire rockets and glide bombs from a greater distance.
“Russian pilots have been cautious throughout the war,” the British institute’s report states, “so even a small number of Western fighters could have a significant deterrent effect.”
Why do the Ukrainians want the F-16s?
Ukrainians don’t just want to use aircraft as a deterrent.
A group of members of the Ukrainian Parliament speaking last month at the German Marshall Fund in Washington said they wanted the F-16s because their radar can locate ground targets hundreds of kilometers away, keeping the pilots safe. by flying over territories under the control of Ukraine while launching weapons against areas occupied by Russia.
Ihnat mentioned that in addition to being used for air defense — that is, shooting down Russian missiles and drones — the planes could provide cover for Ukrainian troops trying to advance in any counteroffensive. Ihnat noted that they could also be used to fend off Russian aircraft that have started dropping guided bombs from at least 30 miles away from the Ukrainian battlefront; to defend the maritime route that allows Ukrainian grain to leave the country; and to gain air supremacy over Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.
Neither of those goals can be achieved with the current Ukrainian fleet of Soviet-designed aircraft, he said.
“The fleet is very old,” Ihnat admitted. “We have four to five times fewer planes than the Russians and the range of the planes is four to five times less than the Russians.”
How would Ukraine’s military capabilities be increased with the F-16s?
The small, highly maneuverable, single-engine fighter-bomber has long been a mainstay of the US Air Force, a weapon that saw extensive combat use during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in the Balkans and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to one description of the war plane offered by the Air Forcethe F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is capable of engaging ground targets more than 500 miles away while defending with air-to-air missiles.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts have pointed out that the Ukrainian air force needs these modern fighters and missiles to sustainably counter Russian jets, which have greater firepower penetration, and to defend its position against the Russian juggernaut that it has incessantly used bombers to destroy large cities, such as Mariupol and Bakhmut, in order to capture them.
Although Biden does not believe that fighter jets will soon play a significant role in the Ukrainian side’s strategy, providing them is part of the rationale for defending Ukraine, even after the current phase of the war is over.
The Ukrainian authorities have long claimed that Ukraine needs an army equipped and trained to NATO standards, with modern aircraft in order to protect its borders with Russia in the long term. The decision to provide the F-16s to Ukraine suggests that the Biden administration and its allies believe this as well, and that even if an end to the fighting is negotiated—perhaps an armistice similar to the one in Korea—in the long term Ukraine will need weapons to deter an angry and sanctioned Russia.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed from Odessa, Ukraine; john ismay from Washington and david e sanger from Hiroshima, Japan.
Carlotta Gall is a senior international correspondent covering the war in Ukraine. She was previously the Istanbul bureau chief of the Times and covered Türkiye. She previously reported on the consequences of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, she reported from the Balkans during the war in Kosovo and Serbia and covered Afghanistan and Pakistan. She was part of a team that won the Pulitzer in 2009 for her work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. @carlottagall • Facebook