Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky touched down at Eindhoven, in the southern Netherlands, at a Dutch Air Force facility on August 20. This visit happened two days following the Ukrainian President obtaining consent from the United States to send American F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv. On the day, Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, officially solidified the joint pledge of the Netherlands and Denmark to provide F-16 aircraft to Ukraine.
Mark Rutte did not reveal how many of the country’s 42 F-16 fighter jets will be donated, but he confirmed that the transaction would occur shortly. However, Zelenskyy claimed through social media that after speaking with the Dutch Prime Minister, the two sides agreed that Ukraine would obtain 42 F-16 aircraft.
Of the 42 F-16s in the Netherlands, 24 are in service and can be delivered to Ukraine in mid-2024.
Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, announced that her country would donate 19 of its 30 F-16s to Ukraine. She stated that an initial squadron of six aircraft might leave Denmark closer to the new year.
Former United States intelligence officer and United Nations inspector Scott Ritter states that the F-16 aircraft scheduled to be transferred from the Netherlands and Denmark to Ukraine are antiquated and do not meet the safety requirements established by the United States and NATO. He writes on social media that just 24 of the 42 F-16s owned by the Netherlands fulfilled the requisite airworthiness standards.
Forbes magazine writes that acquiring 61 F-16 fighters will enable Kyiv to effectively replace around 50% of its combat aircraft inventory from the Soviet era. According to Forbes, 61 F-16s might adequately serve as replacements for almost 50% of Ukraine’s primary Air Force fleet. This fleet now consists of approximately 125 aircraft from the Cold War era, specifically MiG-29s, Su-24s, Su-25s, and Su-27s.
According to the publication, since the start of the special operation, Kyiv has lost approximately 70 aircraft. However, the Ukrainian forces have replenished their losses through donations from allied countries.
Ukraine currently has the same number of combat aircraft as in February 2022. Thus, when the F-16 pilots and aircraft start arriving, Kyiv will have two options. The publication notes that it can either replace half of its outdated Soviet-era aircraft or significantly increase its air force capabilities.
How Ukraine might employ the F-16s
As a safe option, the UAF (Ukrainian Air Force) can use F-16s relatively safely as airborne launch platforms for “air-to-ground” missiles. Standard operating procedure for such a flight includes departure, arrival at specified coordinates in Ukrainian airspace, missile launch, return to the airbase, and landing. It is an uncomplicated mission consistently covered by Ukraine’s air defence. There is no threat of an Aerial battle, which will reduce pilots’ training requirements in such tasks.
In a more risky venture, the aircraft can be used as an interceptor for air defence, targeting hovering drones, loitering munitions, and cruise missiles within Ukrainian airspace. This mission classification is relatively low-risk and straightforward. The aircraft is equipped with medium- and short-range “air-to-air” missiles and can operate autonomously, searching for and engaging straight-flying airborne targets, or they can follow the instructions of ground-based air defence systems. This strategy is reasonably secure and fundamentally manageable.
A nearly comprehensive deployment of F-16s could entail countering Russian strike aircraft over the battlefield. This type of combat application would necessitate more qualified pilots. These pilots must be prepared for agile, modern aerial combat against an adversary sure to resist.
This F-16 usage scenario will likely evolve into this more difficult one. It is feasible that Russian multirole fighters such as the Su-30 and Su-35S will be used in this scenario. They considerably outperform the F-16 in terms of flight and combat characteristics. Given equal conditions, the Russian Sukhois fighters should have the upper hand in initial encounters.
Russia may use long-range air-to-air missiles such as the R-37M, with a range of over 300 kilometres. These missiles could effectively interfere with the missions of F-16s of the first and second types. The F-16 would likely be a respectable opponent in close-quarters aerial combat, but the odds are stacked against it – highly manoeuvrable Su-35S fighters would outperform it by a wide margin.
The other side of the story
Scott Ritter predicts Kyiv’s F-16s will be destroyed in enemy fire within a month.
According to Justin Bronk, an expert on air combat at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the F-16 requires a clean and well-maintained air base. Bronk adds that the F-16’s landing gear is also “very light” and that the aircraft’s excellent thrust-to-weight ratio (TWR) eliminates any excess weight on the fuselage. Whether resurfacing or extending the runway, it is evident that the Russian military’s satellites and the informants Moscow has placed on the ground cannot be avoided, says Bronk.
The adversaries are more cautious. Denis Pushilin, the acting head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), stated in an interview with “Russia 24” that the delivery of F-16 fighters to Kyiv will generate additional complications, but the Russian military personnel are aware of what to do with these aircraft.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has emphasised that the US and its NATO allies are creating risks of direct armed confrontation with Russia, which could lead to catastrophic consequences. He stated that Russia would view the presence of F-16 fighters capable of carrying nuclear weapons in Kyiv as a threat from the West in the nuclear sphere.