So far, the air battle over Ukraine has stood out above all for the restraint of both sides: neither Ukraine nor Russia are able to gain air superiority. Whether the looming transfer of American-made F-16 fighter jets will change this is unclear.
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The influence of the F-16 depends on the intention with which Kiev uses it, says Kelly Grieco, who deals with modern air combat and American foreign policy for the Stimson Center think tank in Washington D.C. Ukraine has provided different information on this. In any case, there are no firm commitments from the West yet. In what number the F-16s will be delivered, and by whom, what version and with what armament they will be equipped, is open.
But one thing is certain, Grieco says: "They won't be a gamechanger." Ukraine hopes to provide better protection against Russian missile and drone attacks in conjunction with ground-based defense systems. The aircraft could also be used to support ground forces, depending on their armament.
For Ukraine's offensive, which is expected shortly, the F-16s are unlikely to be ready in time. According to the civilian head of the American Air Force, Frank Kendall, it will take "at best several months" for Ukraine to receive the fighter jets. A Pentagon spokesman said the training, which is to take place in Europe, could begin "within weeks or months." The American Air Force believes that the Ukrainians could learn how to use the F-16 within four months, instead of 18 as previously thought.
Too few anti-aircraft missiles
Even if the F-16s arrive in time, they are unlikely to prove decisive in the counteroffensive, says Kelly Grieco. Ukraine could use the planes against Russian logistics and command posts behind the front line, which would make it difficult for Russians to respond quickly to a Ukrainian advance. But there are also other options with less logistical effort, such as the long-range combat drones recently announced by the UK.
In principle, the "feasibility and effectiveness" of F-16 missions in offensive operations is likely to reach its limits, Grieco says. It is a so-called 4th generation aircraft, which are technically less advanced than 5th generation models, such as those currently used by the United States, among others. The F-16 was introduced during the Carter administration and has been modernized several times since then, but it has no stealth technology, Grieco said. This makes them extremely vulnerable to Russian air defense: "If the Russians have one, it's good anti-aircraft systems."
The fact that air combat has not played a decisive role in the Ukraine war so far is due to effective air defense systems that pose a threat to pilots. As a result, the Russian Air Force, which is clearly superior on paper, is forced to fly its missions over Ukraine at low altitudes – but there it can be targeted by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft guided missiles (MANPADS). Moscow therefore carries out many air strikes with missiles from its own airspace. But even Ukrainian fighter jets can do little against modern Russian defense systems such as the S-400. "Neither side is able to gain air superiority, but both manage to deny it to the other side," Kelly says.
However, the stock of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles seems to be decreasing threateningly, as evidenced by punctured Pentagon papers. The problem is that the West doesn't have enough of it either, Grieco says. Kiev's strongest argument for the F-16 derives from this: they could intercept enemy aircraft, cruise missiles or drones from a distance.
Germany can also help
Another advantage is the high availability. Several NATO countries have the F-16 in their stocks or are converting to more modern aircraft. So there are no signs of a shortage of spare parts. This could be conducive to supporting the Ukrainian Air Force in the long term, even after the war.
On the other hand, there are logistical and maintenance challenges for Ukraine, Grieco explains. The F-16 is a very specific aircraft. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the scientific service of the American Congress, the training of maintenance personnel can take months or years, depending on the desired level. Once trained, according to analysts, they are dependent on special equipment and a "massive" logistical organization. The U.S. Air Force needs about 16 hours of maintenance for each flight hour of an F-16.
Germany, which does not own an F-16 itself, could at least make a contribution here. "Nations that do not have an F-16 can provide more marginal support here, such as infrastructure or training," Air Force inspector Ingo Gerhartz told the Tagesspiegel. He also pointed out that aircraft can be used interoperably within NATO – so the armament of a German Eurofighter can easily be transferred to an F-16.