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Long-awaited F-16s may struggle to save Ukraine from Russian assault

Ukraine’s imminent deployment of F-16 fighter jets will not be a “silver bullet” in the war against Russia, an expert has warned.

Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have committed to supplying Kyiv with more than 60 of the US-made aircraft, with the first dozen expected to reach the Ukrainian air force in the next month.

An initial group of six Ukrainian pilots completed RAF-delivered preliminary flight training in the UK in December, advancing to a specialised programme delivered in Denmark.

A Danish F-16 aircraft showcases some of its capabilities at a press event on April 16, 2024 at Skrydstrup Air Base in Denmark, where Denmark's Minister of Defence met his Argentinian counterpart. The occasion is the signing ceremony of the contract for the sale of 24 Danish F-16 combat aircraft to Argentina. (Photo by Bo Amstrup / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
A Danish F-16 pictured in June as Denmark agrees to join a coalition of Nato allies donating a batch of the combat aircraft to Ukraine (Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP)

Ukraine has been requesting deliveries of the jets for a year, as it seeks to break a deadlock in the two-year conflict’s air war and push back advancing Russian forces.

Fighting has intensified near Kharkiv in recent weeks, with Russian officials claiming to have seized about a dozen villages in the north-eastern region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that Kyiv’s forces were gradually pushing Russian troops out of the contested area.

“The enemy clearly understands that the gradual arrival of weapons and equipment from our partners, the arrival of the first F-16s, strengthens our air defences,” added Ukraine’s top military commander, Oleksandr Syrskyi. “Time is on our side and their chances of success will diminish.”

An F-16 fleet would represent a major upgrade on Ukraine’s relatively small stock of Soviet-era warplanes, estimated to number around 100.

The fighter jets would significantly enhance Kyiv’s offensive and defensive air capabilities, enabling it to protect frontline and border regions from precision-guided glide bombs and strike from distance deeper into enemy territory.

But Mathieu Boulègue, a consulting fellow at Chatham House, told i that the deployment of F-16s is unlikely to be a pivotal turning point in the war.

He said: “F-16s are a tactical enabler that will help Ukraine continue to further its military goals and to help armed forces on the ground. But they do not represent a silver bullet that will help Ukraine win the war. It’s a tactical increment rather than a game-changer.

“The F-16 will help smoothen up the kill-chain for Ukrainian forces. They will be able to destroy more targets from the air. They will streamline the ability of Ukraine forces to strike back tactically and operationally on the battleground. But that’s it – there’s no bigger twist.”

However, in the view of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the additional offensive capabilities offered by the F-16 could eventually enable Ukraine to establish pockets of air superiority – a crucial factor in regaining territory.

The air battle has been in a state of parity for the conflict’s duration, with neither Ukraine not Russia controlling the skies for their own ends.

Russia’s powerful air defence systems have downed at least 86 Ukrainian aircraft since the conflict began, while Moscow is believed to have lost more than 100.

“The missing component of air superiority for Ukraine is an offensive air capability, which the F-16s will begin to provide,” a recent report by CSIS reads.

“Therefore, ground forces find themselves locked in relatively static battles of attrition, unable to create the conditions for a decisive manoeuvre campaign that could change the trajectory of the war.

“The robust Russian Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) makes establishing air superiority over the entire occupied territory a difficult feat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) reacts as he sits in a F-16 fighter jet in the hangar of the Skrydstrup Airbase in Vojens, northern Denmark, on August 20, 2023. Washington has told Denmark and the Netherlands that they will be permitted to hand over their F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine when the country's pilots are trained to operate them, the US State Department said on August 18, 2023. Both Denmark and the Netherlands are leading the program to train Ukraine's pilots on the F-16. (Photo by Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sits in the cockpit a F-16 fighter jet at an airbase in Denmark after securing an agreement for their transfer (Photo: AFP/Getty)

“However, the Ukrainian Air Force can focus on establishing localised air superiority over limited areas for limited times.

“Such localised air superiority would be coordinated with Ukrainian land offensives to support a breakthrough operation and would be most effective with combined arms operations.

“Giving F-16s to Ukraine is an essential move toward establishing air superiority.”

The report notes that it may take up to four or five years for Ukrainian pilots to reach a level of proficiency where they are capable of executing combat missions effectively.

Ukrainian officials have been pressing Nato to ramp up its programme of F-16 training, expressing concerns that not enough pilots are being produced at the current rate.

Oleksandra Ustinova, the head of Ukraine’s special parliamentary commission on arms and munitions, has said that only 20 pilots will have been fully trained to fly F-16s by the end of the year.

According to Politico, the US has told Kyiv that other countries are ahead of Ukrainian pilots in the line for training spots and it must honour its commitments to them.

“These are not arguments, they are excuses, and they keep coming up with them time and time again,” Ms Ustinova said.

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