Opinion | Why Ukraine Needs Those F-16s
KYIV, Ukraine — On Friday morning, local time, I received news of one of the best American decisions of the war: The White House would no longer block its European allies from supplying Ukraine with American-made F-16 fighters, a move that should greatly enhance Ukrainian military capabilities without significantly increasing the risk of unacceptable escalation in its conflict with Russia. (The decision still needs to be approved by some congressional leaders.)
The move came after a diplomatic blitz from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, before this weekend’s Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan. European leaders had signaled a willingness to supply F-16s from their own stocks and train Ukrainian pilots in their use. But until now, the Biden administration had nixed the idea. The reversal is a major, and welcome, policy change.
Readers of my Thursday newsletter know that I spent the past week in Kyiv, and I can attest to the relentlessness of Ukrainian arguments for advanced fighters. I met with Ukrainian leaders across the full spectrum of government, including the defense minister, the foreign minister and ministers and other officials involved in law enforcement and economic reconstruction. I had never seen as consistent, disciplined messaging as I experienced here, all of it centered on a single, specific idea: Ukraine needs advanced Western fighters. Specifically, they were asking for American-made F-16s.
The high point came when I met with Oleksandr Kubrakov, the minister for communities, territories and infrastructure development, and even an infrastructure minister began the meeting by handing out a printed argument for supplying F-16s to Ukraine. I expected (and received) that argument from the defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov; I did not expect it from Kubrakov.
To an extent, they were preaching to the choir. I came to Ukraine already believing that Kyiv needed advanced fighters, but I was unsure whether it needed F-16s specifically. After all, European militaries also feature hundreds of European-designed and -manufactured generation 4.5 fighter aircraft. To understand the critical importance of Ukraine’s request — and the rightness of the Biden administration’s decision — some basic background is necessary.
The jet fighter age is described in generations, which are categories of aircraft defined by their capabilities. There’s some disagreement as to how to classify different aircraft, but as a general matter, the first three generations, running from the debut of jet fighters to the middle of the Cold War, are completely obsolete and are not part of the debate. Fourth-generation planes, like early models of the F-15 and F-16 and the Russian MIG-29 and Su-27, were the best planes of the Cold War and are still in service in most modern militaries, including Russia’s and Ukraine’s.
The apex of current fighter technology is fifth-generation stealth fighters, which include the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II and Russia’s Su-57. Generation 4.5 is sandwiched between generations four and five: The fighters aren’t stealthy, but they have vastly upgraded avionics compared with fourth-generation fighters, and they can deploy more highly advanced armaments.
Generation 4.5 fighters include upgraded models of the American F-15, F-16 and F-18, as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Saab JAS-39 Gripen and France’s Dassault Rafale. Crucially, the list also includes the Russian Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35. Russia has hundreds of generation 4.5 fighters. Ukraine has none. Instead it has a few dozen Soviet-era fourth-generation fighters.
And therein lies the problem. Don’t be deceived by 2022’s top-grossing movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” in which (spoiler alert) Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, pilots a decades-old fourth-generation F-14 Tomcat to victory over a number of enemy fifth-generation fighters. In the real world, the generation gap would have been decisive.
According to Reznikov, the defense minister, Russia’s Su-35 (to take a key example) can hit targets at a range more than five times as great as Ukraine’s MIG-29 can. Moreover, such 4.5-generation fighters can carry a much greater array of advanced missiles than can Ukraine’s older fighters. This means that Ukrainian planes have a more limited capacity to provide air defense within the country and no ability to create air superiority at or near the zero line, the very edge of the battlefront, Reznikov said.
What does this mean as a practical matter? While I have firsthand knowledge that Western-supplied ground-to-air missiles (most notably, American Patriot missiles) can be remarkably effective against even Russian hypersonic missiles, at best, they can defend only small, confined areas of Ukraine. Vast areas of the front and most of Ukraine’s civilians and civilian infrastructure remain unacceptably vulnerable to Russian air attack.
Not only can F-16s fly the length and breadth of Ukraine to offer enhanced air defense; they also have a much greater capacity to strike Russian forces directly at the front and miles beyond.
This capacity is proving even more important because multiple Ukrainian officials emphasized to me that Russian jamming has rendered the missiles fired by the vaunted American HIMARS system far less effective. (This is how war sometimes evolves: A tactic or technology works until the opponent develops a successful response, at which point a new innovation is required.) More-advanced fighters can also engage Russian planes that are using a successful tactic called glide bombing, in which they bomb Ukraine from positions outside the range of most Ukrainian antiaircraft missiles.
So why the need for American-made F-16s and not European-designed generation 4.5 fighters? The defense minister said that overall there may simply be too few of the latter to offer without dangerously depleting the fighter stocks of European allies. By contrast, not only are thousands of F-16s in service across American and allied militaries; many of those aircraft are being replaced by more advanced planes. Thus they are both numerous and available to Ukraine without degrading NATO capabilities.
Finally, it’s important to address the possibility of escalation. The F-16 — especially in the modest numbers under discussion — does not present a substantial threat to Russia itself. It presents a substantial threat only to the Russian invasion. It is not a true deep-strike aircraft, like the B-1 Lancer bomber or even the F-15E Strike Eagle. It is a weapon that Ukraine can deploy in a defensive capacity and that can strike relatively close behind the front line. It is exactly what Ukraine needs.
It is fair to argue about the timing of the Biden administration’s decision to release European F-16s. It’s a decision that could have been made earlier. Moreover, the administration is still allowing Ukraine to receive only F-16s belonging to European allies, not our own planes. But despite that shortcoming, which needs to be remedied soon, the fundamental reality is that allowing Ukraine any F-16s is the right decision. It’s the decision one makes when transitioning from a long-term strategy of simply keeping Ukraine alive toward a strategy of driving Russia from occupied Ukraine and — critically — deterring renewed Russian aggression after this war.
Perhaps the best short argument in support of the Biden administration’s decision was summed up by the former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. He told me to “ask a NATO general how to win this war without aviation.” Providing Ukraine with advanced fighters not only makes its task easier; it’s a sign the Biden administration is ready to turn the page from helping Ukraine simply avoid defeat. Now we are starting to help Ukraine achieve victory — and maintain the peace we pray is soon to come.
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