British and Dutch plans to help Ukraine acquire F-16 fighter jets have put the United States and some of Europe’s closest allies at odds – once again – over what weapons to send to the West in Kyiv to defend against Russian invasion.
Even if the Biden administration overcomes long-standing reluctance to provide Ukraine with American-made planes, the F-16 will not be used in combat for months at the earliest, military officials and analysts said. But with no end to the war in sight, the F-16 has become the latest advanced weapon that Ukraine and some of its backers say it needs to deter Russia — both in the current conflict and in future ones. years.
Here’s a look at the F-16, why Ukraine wants it and why the Biden administration is reluctant to give it up.
What is the F-16?
First flown in 1976, the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” is a supersonic fighter jet used by the militaries of 25 countries for air-to-air combat and air-to-ground strikes. It has flown in American conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf and in US air homeland defense missions.
The F-16 is built by American defense contractor Lockheed Martin and manufacturers in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway – four countries that a senior Ukrainian official said have quietly signaled they are willing to move some of the their F-16s in Kyiv.
It is widely considered versatile, lightweight and cost-effective — with a price tag of up to $63 million, depending on the model, according to some estimates. There are approximately 3,000 currently in active military service worldwide, including hundreds in the US Air Force and Navy.
Why do Ukraine want them so much?
The F-16 has both offensive and defensive capabilities. In the short term, Ukrainian officials say, F-16s and other advanced Western fighter jets are needed to boost air defenses, with Kyiv’s existing ground-launched systems tired of constant barrages of Russian missiles. The jets can be launched within minutes and used to shoot down incoming enemy missiles and aircraft.
Without modern fighter jets, “no air defense system will be perfect,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told European leaders gathered for a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, this week.
Beyond the current conflict, many officials across Europe and the United States believe that the F-16 will be a key deterrent to future aggression against Ukraine by Russia’s superior air force.
Why is the US reluctant to send them?
Training Ukrainian pilots to fly Western jets will take months, and the Biden administration has said it would be better to send weapons that could help Ukraine in a future counteroffensive against Russia — a war that many in the West hoped would be a turning point in the war. A senior American official said this week that the cost of sending the F-16s would absorb much of the shrinking pot of US war funding.
In a House hearing last month, Celeste A. Wallander, an assistant secretary of defense, said the administration was focused on Ukraine’s military needs but what was practical. “What they need right now, that’s what we’re targeting for the battles they’re facing,” he said. “What can we deliver that is timely and effective?”
He said that modern Western jet fighters, such as F-16s, are “eighth on the list” of priorities.
What are the chances that Ukraine will eventually get F-16s?
Probably fair to high, according to military officials and analysts. The Biden administration has previously said no to several types of advanced weapons for Ukraine — including HIMARS missile launchers, Abrams tanks and Patriot missiles — to back itself under pressure from allies. in Europe and Congress.
Under what analysts describe as the most likely scenario, the United States would issue export licenses to other countries with F-16s, allowing them to transfer their jets to Ukraine. Given the cost of each jet, it is highly unlikely that the United States will send its own F-16s to Ukraine, although it is not impossible.
If Western allies seek to upgrade Ukraine’s aging Soviet-era air fleet with more modern jets, giving the country F-16s is “the most likely outcome,” Douglas said. Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
He also said it would be impossible for Britain, which has a “special relationship” with America, to continue trying to provide F-16s if the Biden administration is not even a little on board. “It was shocking, to put it mildly,” he said.