Since the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, officials in Kiev have asked 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 provide them, or to allow other countries with F-16s to re-export them to Ukraine.
US officials have expressed concern that the jets could be used to strike targets inside Russia, which could escalate the conflict, and have said that sending more weapons to Ukraine is a top priority. But President Biden reversed course on Friday, telling allies he would allow Ukrainian pilots to train on the F-16s and that the United States would work with other countries to supply the planes to Kiev.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he called the “historic decision of the United States”, and said it would “significantly strengthen our army in the sky”.
Here’s what we know about how the move will affect the Ukrainian Air Force.
How strong is the Ukrainian Air Force?
Ukraine inherited a huge but aging fleet of Soviet-designed combat aircraft and helicopters, a legacy of its history as part of the former Soviet Union. The force’s spokesman, Colonel Yuriy Ihnat, said in an interview on Saturday that the Ukrainian Air Force’s fleet includes combat aircraft such as the MiG-29, bombers, transport and training aircraft.
Western military analysts estimate that the combined Ukrainian fleet, of air and land forces, has been depleted by more than a third since the start of the Russian invasion. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of its 145 fixed-wing aircraft and 32 of its 139 helicopters, according to a US military tip that was among classified materials leaked on social media platform Discord in recent months. The document is not dated.
The Ukrainian Air Force rarely discloses numbers regarding its fleet or other details, including incidents of aircraft being shot down or otherwise destroyed. But officials acknowledged some losses during the war, as well as difficulties repairing and replacing damaged aircraft.
“The newest plane is from 1991,” said Colonel Ihnat. “And all this must be maintained, repaired and spare parts obtained.”
Getting spare parts has become an issue, since Russia is the sole producer of many of those parts. Even before the full-scale invasion, trade in these items largely ceased after 2014, when Russian-backed forces took control of parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Overall, the Ukrainian Air Force is “technologically superior and badly outnumbered” compared to the Russian Air Force, according to November report from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
How do Ukrainians use their planes?
As Russian forces jammed Ukraine’s 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, and engaged in air-to-air engagements to thwart Russian bombing raids, according to the IAAF. Institute report.
The report said that the Ukrainian fighter jets inflicted some losses on the Russian planes, but “they also caused heavy losses.” The Ukrainians suffered losses in some friendly fire incidents in the following days as they rushed to introduce new air defense systems.
However, despite having a superior fleet, Russia has not been able to achieve air superiority over all of Ukraine, thanks to Ukraine’s powerful air defences. These defenses became increasingly strong as Western countries contributed some of their most advanced weapons.
The Ukrainian Air Force continues to fly combat missions, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are often seen flying close to the eastern front line. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have supplied Ukraine with replacement MiG-29s, the first transfers the country has received to bolster its depleted fleet. Colonel Ihnat said that some of them are not serviceable and will be used for spare parts.
However, Ukrainian planes and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and limit their actions so as not to stray from Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian attack aircraft and helicopters have developed a tactic of flying low, firing unguided missiles from Ukrainian territory, and then operating immediately to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Russian planes use similar tactics but have the advantage of superior firepower, which allows them to launch missiles and glide bombs from a greater distance.
“The Russian pilots were careful throughout the war, so even a small number of Western fighters could have a significant deterrent effect,” said a Russian institute report.
Why do Ukrainians want the F-16?
The Ukrainians only want to use the planes as a deterrent.
A group of Ukrainian parliamentarians who spoke at the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month said they want the F-16 because its radar can identify targets on the ground hundreds of miles away, allowing pilots to stay safely over Ukrainian-controlled territory while firing weapons. in the territories occupied by Russia.
Col. Ihnat said that in addition to being used for air defense — that is, to shoot down Russian missiles and drones — the plane could provide cover for Ukrainian forces trying to advance in a counterattack. He noted that it could also be used to fend off Russian aircraft that began launching guided bombs from at least 30 miles from the Ukrainian front line; to defend the sea route that would allow Ukrainian grain to leave the country; and to gain air superiority over Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.
He said none of these goals could be achieved with Ukraine’s current fleet of Soviet-designed aircraft.
“The fleet is very old,” said Colonel Ihnat. We have four to five times less aircraft than the Russian ones, and the range of the aircraft is four to five times less than the Russian ones.
How will the F-16 increase Ukraine’s capabilities?
The small, highly maneuverable, single-engine fighter-bomber has long been a mainstay of the USAF, which used it extensively in combat during the 1991 Gulf War, in the Balkans, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
according to Description of the Air Force warplaneThe F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is capable of striking targets on the ground more than 500 miles away while defending itself with air-to-air missiles.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts said that the Ukrainian Air Force needs such modern Western fighters and missiles to sustainably confront Russian aircraft, which have a greater depth of firepower, and to hold its ground against the Russian juggernaut, which relentlessly used bombers to destroy large aircraft. Cities like Mariupol and Bakhmut to capture.
Although Mr. Biden does not believe that combat aircraft will play a significant role on the Ukrainian side of the conflict for a while, providing them is part of the thinking about how to defend Ukraine even after the current phase of the war is over.
Ukrainian officials have long said that Ukraine needs an army equipped and trained according to NATO standards with modern aircraft so that it can guard its borders with Russia in the long term. The decision to provide the F-16s to Ukraine indicates that the Biden administration and its allies now think so, too, and that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-style armistice — Ukraine will need a long one. The ability to deter an angry, punished Russia.
Oleksandr Chupko Contributed reporting from Odessa, Ukraine. John Ismay in Washington and David Sanger in Hiroshima, Japan.
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