America’s Unconvincing Reasons for Denying F-16s to Ukraine

Before each decision to arm Ukraine with a new category of powerful arms, NATO partners progress through three stages of denial. First comes an outright dismissal of the country’s ability to effectively deploy the weapons in question against Russian invaders. Ukraine could never use these—the argument has been applied to multiple rocket-launch systems, anti-aircraft systems, and sophisticated tanks—because they are just too complex. Next comes a qualified dismissal. Ukrainian forces might be able to use these systems, but equipping and training them would take far too long. Then comes a desperate third stage. Yes, Ukraine can use these weapons, which could make a big difference in the war, but we worry about how Russia or China might respond. This view, though not always publicly voiced, almost certainly is the real reason the United States and other Western powers are holding back some arms.

On the question of whether the West will provide F-16s—a capable but relatively simple, lightweight fighter aircraft widely used by NATO members—the discussion is stuck somewhere between Stages 1 and 2. Ukraine clearly needs improved air-defense capabilities and so is constantly pleading for F-16s. The U.S. is rejecting these appeals primarily with technical and logistical arguments. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, has repeatedly claimed in recent weeks that Ukraine would need 18 months to be able to deploy and operate F-16s. The suggestion is that people should stop pressuring the U.S. to provide these planes, because they could never arrive in time to make a difference.

Yet Ukraine would not be educating F-16 pilots from scratch. It has a large number of experienced MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 pilots, who have the added benefit of many months of combat flying. Comments by some current and former senior officers from NATO air forces suggest that qualified, experienced fighter pilots might need only a few months of training. (Ukrainian officials have described a similar timetable.) From the Ukrainian armed forces’ strong record of accomplishment, we can assume that Ukraine would not find it any more difficult to maintain F-16s than to learn how to fly them.

Retired U.S. Air Force General Phil Breedlove, a former supreme allied commander for Europe who has also worked closely with the Ukrainian air force, expresses confidence in its abilities. “There are very few absolutes in this Russian War on Ukraine,” Breedlove told us in an email. “But one thing that is absolutely consistent is that we always overestimate how long it will take Ukraine to assimilate and learn to employ the western weapons given to them.” In the past, Breedlove pointed out, Ukrainians have even had certain lessons for NATO. “In the case of weapons such as counter battery radars we supplied in the 2014 Russian Invasions of Ukraine, they have taught us how to better use them!”

Having F-16s would broaden Ukraine’s ability to shoot down incoming Russian missiles and drones. During last year’s campaigns, the Russians relied on a wide range of attack platforms: relatively simple and inexpensive Iranian Shahed drones, repurposed S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, more advanced Kalibr cruise missiles, and even Russia’s latest Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. To shoot down just some of this weapony, the Ukrainians had to rely overwhelmingly on ground-based anti-air systems—to such a degree that rumors spread that Ukraine was or would soon be running short. Without an airborne defense—something F-16s would help provide—Ukraine is, to use a sports metaphor, defending on its own goal line. Instead of a systematic defense of its skies, the Ukrainians are fending off attacks on targeted infrastructure point by point. Any defense that relies on last-ditch saves is a notably poor one.

Granted, Ukraine would face some challenges in using F-16s to maximum effect. Any F-16 fleet would require a regular resupply of Western air-to-air missiles. The real problem here may well be that NATO fears exhausting its collective arsenal of such weapons. If so, the West needs to ramp up production in its own interests—rather than nervously guarding existing supplies when they could be put to good use in Ukraine.

Even with F-16s, Ukraine would not be able to use air power according to NATO doctrine, in which mutually complementary types of aircraft protect one another. But in the limited confines of the Ukrainian battle space, such high-end, airborne capabilities, designed to operate at long range and in enemy airspace, would be less important. Still, Ukraine’s primary need is to keep one step ahead of the Russian air forces to maintain primacy over the battlefield—that is, over Ukrainian territory. It must keep Russian aircraft on the defensive and prevent it from affecting any coming Ukrainian offensive. Ukrainian air power doesn’t need to attain NATO standards to serve that goal.

To that more limited end, Western allies should also consider expanding Ukraine’s ground-based electronic-warfare systems; continuing to reinforce its surface-to-air-missile capacity; enhancing its proven ability in “prototype warfare,” the deployment of experimental military technology primarily to shoot down Russian surface-to-air missiles along the front line; and integrating its various defenses via a ground-based communications network. With these improvements, the F-16 could operate in relative safety, and it would pose enough of a threat to thwart many Russian offensive missions before they could prosecute their attacks on Ukraine. This would reduce the emerging threat posed by Russia’s new glide bombs, launched at high speed from aircraft remaining behind Russia’s own lines—a big win for Ukraine’s strategic aims.

Skeptics who argue that preparing Ukrainian forces to deploy and maintain F-16s will take too long to do much good are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer they draw out the process of getting a beleaguered country the weapons it needs, the more trouble that country will have in repelling the invaders. The sooner Ukraine has access to F-16s, the sooner it can fight the war far more effectively.

Already these delaying tactics mean it is too late to have any F-16s play a role in an expected Ukrainian spring-and-summer offensive. However, if the West moves soon, Ukraine could have essential assistance in place by the fall. It will need the help. Last winter the Russians embarked on a well-publicized strategic campaign against power plants and other Ukrainian infrastructure. Though the campaign failed, the Russians are very likely to attempt something similar this year, having learned from their previous failures.

For all of the West’s technical objections to giving F-16s to Ukraine, the real objection is likely based in fears of escalation. Never mind that Russia’s bloodcurdling threats of escalation have proved hollow again and again, and that Ukraine has abided by limits that skittish Western powers have put on the use of the weapons they are supplying.

In the end, providing Ukraine with F-16s as soon as possible would make a major difference in Ukraine’s ability to both wage defensive war and go on the offensive to reclaim its territory. It would allow Ukrainians, finally, to conduct ground operations in a comprehensive manner and to defend their cities and power-generation systems. It would help them win this war as quickly as possible with the fewest losses.

The Atlantic