US President Joe Biden announced his willingness to allow other countries to supply Ukraine with US F-16 fighters and reaffirmed his support for a joint initiative aimed at training Ukrainian pilots on the fighter, signaling a significant shift in the level of Western military assistance for Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Biden’s announcement as “historic”.
The US step was also welcomed in Britain, where Prime Minister Richie Sunak said his country will cooperate with the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark to give Ukraine the combat air support it needs. He also called the US support for this broad initiative “welcome”.
Although it is currently unlikely that the United States will send fighters to Ukraine, it has permitted other countries to do so. Poland, which owns F-16s, has previously stated that it is prepared to provide Ukraine with them. The same is true for the Netherlands, which, like several NATO countries, has switched out its F-16 aircraft for the newest model, the F-35 aircraft.
It is remarkable that the quantity or timing of the aircraft’s delivery to Ukraine, the number of pilots who will receive training, or the variety of the aircraft’s armament—whether air-air or air-to-ground—have not been specified. Notably, the tasks that an aircraft will perform, their effectiveness and method of execution, as well as the equipment that the aircraft is equipped with, such as the type of radar, obstruction and electronic noise devices against potential ground and air hostilities, and self-protection systems against hostile missiles, are all largely determined by the armament of the aircraft.
Pilot Training and Preparation
Typically, pilots receive training through specialized programs that cover the following areas:
- The theoretical study of aircraft systems (engine, flight control computer, aircraft auxiliary equipment, electrical systems, navigation systems, arming systems, and launcher systems)
- Theoretical investigation of aircraft use: Factors influencing maneuvers and techniques for carrying out various acts.
- Dry training: This entails becoming accustomed to a sturdy cabin and the locations of various meters and switches.
- Training on an aircraft simulator: A training that allows pilots to practice many different maneuvers and procedures.
- Practical Training:
- Air-to-Air Training
- Air-to-Ground Training
- Consolidation of Skills
- Combat Preparation
Establishing a Fighter Pilot Base in Ukraine
It is crucial to keep in mind that there are a number of steps that must be taken to train fighter pilots on the aircraft when they have little to no prior experience with the model in order to build up a base of Ukrainian pilots. Overall, this phase could be cut short, but doing so would expose a serious flaw in the quality of pilot training, which would affect the aircraft’s ability to be used in combat and the certainty of the outcomes.
The F-16 is a modern fighter, like the majority of fourth-generation fighters, with complex and advanced electronic systems, and it requires pilots with knowledge of modern technology, which Ukrainian pilots do not possess because their prior experience is limited to aircraft like the MIG-29, SU-25, and SU-27, which do not have modern technology. This lengthens the time it takes them to learn how to operate the F-16, and the shorter amount of training time may have an impact on how well they can use the aircraft’s systems and devices, including its armament.
Typically, a small number of pilots are trained, and once they complete the program, they are trained to apply on the aircraft upon their return to their country (2-3 months), and the process is repeated to teach other new pilots during the war.
In this context, it should be noted that the global average ratio of pilots to aircraft is approximately 2-3:1, or approximately 2-3 pilots per aircraft. Given the make-up of Fighter Squadron 24, this implies that one squadron needs to train between 48 and 72 pilots. In order for the F-16 to have a significant impact on the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Ukrainian Air Force must be supplied with 6-8 squadrons. This provides a general idea of the timeframes and aircraft required for an effective intervention in the war.
An analysis of the skills of Ukrainian pilots by the US Air National Guard revealed that they could be trained to operate the aircraft in as little as four months. However, according to experts, it may take additional months to transform these pilots into combat-ready pilots who can fully utilize the aircraft’s features. A former F-16 pilot stated, “If Ukrainians are not thoroughly trained in Western tactics, they will not realize any of the benefits of having a true four-plus generation aircraft,” adding, “If you take an F-16 and fly it like a MiG-29, you will just have a hotrod MiG-29, and that is it.” Nevertheless, the time required is likely to be significantly less than the 18-month timeline the Pentagon had previously cited as the quickest possible.
Therefore, in order for the pilot to be able to conduct operational missions (air-air or air-ground), a certain number of flight hours (150-200 flight hours) must be completed for training in the implementation of air engagements, whether long-range (beyond-visual-range) within distances of up to 100 kilometers, or air combat within the visual range (dogfight), as well as training in the throwing of bombs and air-ground missiles, using training and operational ammunition. Technical crews are trained alongside pilots, but the process takes much longer. As a result, it is expected that foreign technicians will work alongside Ukrainian technicians once the operation reaches the necessary technical levels, which could take several years.
The F-16 may be associated with a number of potential technical issues that include the following:
- According to Global Firepower, the number of aircraft operated by Ukrainian forces is 187, of which 41 are combat MIG-SU and auxiliary aircraft. This is ten times less than the number of aircraft operated by Russia. Kiev does not have complete control over its airspace, but its numerous anti-aircraft defense systems prevent Russian fighter jets from operating beyond the front line.
- The US government stated that sending the F-16s to Ukraine is contingent upon ensuring that they are not used against Russia or are not intended to be used to attack targets inside Russia. This is due to a number of factors, including not allowing the Russian air defense to implement strategies to detect the aircraft by radar, deal with it, shoot it down inside Russian territory, deal with it, dismantle it, and analyze the modern devices already present in it.
- In Ukraine, there are numerous air defense systems, including (eastern) Russian and western air defense systems. During operations, F-16 flights must be secured, but it is impossible to secure them using identification devices for the two systems, limiting the use of the aircraft in the airspace where eastern air defense systems are in operation.
- Technical security is one of the most challenging potential challenges for the F-16, with more than 100,000 spare parts, which requires preparing appropriate stores. If supply comes from a neighboring European country, it is necessary to calculate the amount of time needed for the supply method.
- Transitioning a state’s armed forces to use weapons that are fundamentally different from their basic systems takes a long time even in times of peace; doing so while at war is extremely difficult because there is no place to hide from air, artillery, or cruise missiles.
- Russia has recently concentrated on attacking Ukrainian airports. It has not disclosed the types of targets that have been destroyed, but it can be assumed that these targets include all locations that can be used for technical support, storage of spare parts, and facilities for F-16 aircraft maintenance.
F-16’s Targeted Impact
US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley has stated that the F-16 fighters that the United States has promised to provide Ukraine are not a “magic weapon” that will end the conflict in the country. This happened following a gathering of the international Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which organizes the delivery of arms to Ukraine.
Milley added that “There’s no magic weapons in war. And sometimes certain things get labeled as you know, this is gonna be the magic weapon. There are no magic weapons, and the F-16 is not – neither is anything else.” However, if there are a lot of planes, they will undoubtedly be a magical solution. The kind of arming the planes will be sent with could also be a deciding factor. The US message might be based on the few planes that will be sent and the meager effectiveness of the weapons they will carry.
Overall, providing Ukraine with F-16s is primarily media propaganda against Russia and a sign of the West’s willingness to support Ukraine, more so in order to boost Ukraine’s morale than to provide weapons that will have an impact on how operations are carried out. Notably, the United States will not pay for the planes nor send them from its factories.
Furthermore, the announcement of the F-16 supply to Ukraine is perhaps intended to drain Western countries and push them deeper into the realm of extreme hostility toward Russia (as European countries will be providing Ukraine with aircraft), and to ensure the challenge of reestablishing political and economic relations, especially with Russia, in the near future, not to mention draining Russia’s economy, delaying President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to rehabilitate Russia’s international standing, and weakening the new Chinese-Russian alliance, which is crucial to establishing the new global order.