Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began more than a year ago, officials in Kyiv have been asking their Western allies to supply the country’s air force with advanced warplanes such as the F- 16. But the United States, which makes the fighter jet, has long been reluctant to give it up, or to allow other countries that have F-16s to re-export them to Ukraine.
American officials are concerned that the jets could be used to hit targets inside Russia, potentially escalating the conflict, and have said that sending other weapons to Ukraine is a higher priority. But President Biden reversed course on Friday, telling allies he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on the F-16 and that the United States would work with other countries to provide Kyiv with the jets.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he called a “historic decision by the United States,” and said it would “significantly improve our military in the sky.”
Here’s what we know about how the move will affect Ukraine’s air force.
How strong is the Ukrainian air force?
Ukraine inherited a large 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 fighter jets such as MiG-29, bombers, and transport and training aircraft, Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the force, said in an interview on Saturday.
Western military analysts estimate that Ukraine’s combined fleet, which includes air and land forces, has been depleted by more than a third since the Russian invasion began. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of 145 fixed-wing aircraft and 32 of 139 helicopters, according to US military information that was among classified materials leaked on the Discord social media platform in the bag- oh months. The document is undated.
The Ukrainian air force rarely reveals numbers about its fleet or other details, including incidents of planes being shot down or destroyed. But officials acknowledged some losses in the course of the war, as well as difficulties in repairing and replacing damaged aircraft.
“The newest plane is from 1991,” said Colonel Ihnat. “And all of this has to be serviced, repaired and spare parts available.”
Obtaining spare parts became a problem, as Russia was the only manufacturer of most of these parts. Even before the full-scale invasion, sales of such goods largely stopped after 2014, when Russian-backed forces took control of parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
In general, the Ukrainian air force is “technologically outmatched and severely outmatched” compared to the Russian air force, according to a November report by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
How do Ukrainians use their planes?
When Russian forces pounded Ukrainian air defense systems in the early days of the war, Ukrainian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters provided air defense over much of the country, which engaged in air-to-air combats to prevent Russian bombing, according to the institute’s report.
Ukrainian fighter jets inflicted some losses on Russian aircraft but “also took heavy casualties,” the report said. The Ukrainians suffered several incidents of friendly fire in the following days as they scrambled to introduce new air defense systems.
However, despite having a superior fleet, Russia was unable to achieve air supremacy throughout Ukraine, thanks to the strong air defenses of the Ukrainians. Those defenses became stronger as Western nations contributed some of their most sophisticated weapons.
The Ukrainian air force continues to fly combat missions, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are regularly seen flying near the eastern front line. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have supplied Ukraine with replacement MiG-29s, the first transfer the country has received to supplement its depleted fleet. Some are not usable and will be used for spare parts, said Colonel Ihnat.
However, Ukrainian jets and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and limit their actions to avoid straying into Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian jets and attack helicopters developed a low-flying tactic, releasing unguided rockets from Ukrainian territory, then immediately banking to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Russian planes use similar tactics but have the advantage of superior firepower, which allows them to fire rockets and fly bombs from greater distances.
“Russian pilots were cautious throughout the war,” the RUSI institute report said, “so even a small number of Western fighters could have a significant deterrent effect.”
Why do Ukrainians want the F-16?
The Ukrainians do not want to use the jets as a deterrent.
A group of members of the Ukrainian Parliament speaking at the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month said they wanted the F-16 because its radar could find ground targets hundreds of miles away, allowing the pilots to remain safely in Ukrainian-held territory while launching weapons. in areas occupied by Russia.
Colonel Ihnat said that in addition to its use for air defense – that is, to shoot down incoming Russian missiles and drones – the aircraft can provide cover for Ukrainian troops trying to advance in any counteroffensive. He noted that it could also be used to ward off Russian planes that began launching guided bombs from at least 30 miles from the Ukrainian front line; to defend the sea route that allows Ukrainian grain to leave the country; and to gain air supremacy over Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.
None of those goals can be achieved with the current fleet of Soviet aircraft designed in Ukraine, he said.
“The fleet is very old,” said Colonel Ihnat. “We have four to five times less than the Russians, and the range of the planes is four to five times less than the Russians.”
How will the F-16 increase Ukraine’s capabilities?
The small, single-engine and highly maneuverable fighter-bomber has long been a mainstay of the United States Air Force, which used it extensively in combat during the 1991 gulf war, in the Balkans, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to an Air Force description of the warplane, the F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is capable of hitting ground targets more than 500 miles away while defending itself with air- to-air missiles.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts say Ukraine’s air force needs such modern Western fighters and missiles to keep up with Russian planes, which have more deep-seated firepower. , and to maintain themselves against the Russian juggernaut, without stopping to use bombers to destroy large cities like Mariupol and Bakhmut to capture them.
Although Mr. Biden does not believe that fighter jets will play an important role in the Ukrainian side of the conflict for a while, giving them part of thinking about how to protect Ukraine even after the current phase of the war is over.
Ukrainian officials have long said that Ukraine needs an army equipped and trained to NATO standards with modern aircraft to guard its border with Russia in the long term. The decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine suggests that the Biden administration and its allies now believe that too, and that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-like armistice — the Ukraine needs a long time. ability to contain an angry, sanctioned Russia.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Odesa, Ukraine, John Ismay from Washington, and David Sanger from Hiroshima, Japan.