Home Brussels The F-16 takeoff to Ukraine will take time

The F-16 takeoff to Ukraine will take time

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Don’t expect to see F-16s in Ukrainian skies anytime soon — the allies need some time.

Following months of Ukrainian lobbying, the U.S. on Friday greenlit training for Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, raising expectations that a fleet of F-16s would soon be on its way.

Yet as of now, some of the leading contenders to donate the American-developed warplanes — including the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark — have only committed to helping train Ukrainian pilots, expressing reluctance to make further promises. 

“Let’s make sure we now make the most of training activities,” Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “What the future then holds for us,” he added, “remains to be seen.” 

Some, like Belgium, have even directly said they don’t have F-16s to spare.

The pattern, however, is one that has played out over and over as Western allies gradually escalate the weaponry they are shuttling to Ukraine. At first, there is hesitation. Then one of the major powers — often the U.S. — takes a first step, followed by a coalition of European nations that jump roughly together. 

“This is kind of indicative of how the U.S. has provided assistance at every step of the war in Ukraine,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

For now, no one is ready to send the first jet. That could easily change — in time.

“The delivery of F-16s will indeed make a difference … months from now,” said Ben Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. 

Where are the jets now?

The slow decision-making is linked to both political and technical considerations. Few countries have an F-16 surplus, and the modern machines require significant training and logistics. The U.S. also has to authorize other countries to re-export the plane. 

Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, said “the Netherlands are in a position to be [the] first” country gifting fighter jets.

The Netherlands currently has 24 F-16s in use which are “operationally deployable” and “will remain in use until mid-2024,” a spokesperson for the Dutch defense ministry said. “After that, they are available for another destination, such as sale.” 

Ukrainian Air force MiG-29 fighter planes take part exercises during August 2016 | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

The Netherlands also has an additional 18 F-16s “which are no longer used operationally” and “can also be given a different destination.”

Twelve of these 18 were originally slated to be transferred to a private company, but the transfer had been delayed, the spokesperson noted. 

Predictably, the U.S., where the F-16 was invented, maintains its own massive fleet. Yet asked Monday if there is any chance the U.S. will provide its own planes, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters: “I don’t know. I mean, I think there’s a number of possibilities.”

The U.K., meanwhile, has been an aggressive advocate of creating a Western “coalition for jets.” But the country itself lacks any F-16s to donate.

Several other capitals have also signaled they are only willing to go as far as training. In addition to Belgium, Polish President Andrzej Duda said last week that Warsaw will not give away its more modern jets — the country maintains a fleet of 48 F-16s — after already donating Soviet-era MiG-29s.

How long will training take? Where will it happen?

Washington has indicated that while it now supports Ukraine getting access to the F-16s, the decision is designed to help Kyiv in the longer term — and won’t have an immediate impact on the battlefield. 

“It will take several months at best for them to have that capability and there are a lot of details that are going to have to be sorted out,” Kendall, the air force secretary, said Monday. “It will give the Ukrainians an incremental capability that they don’t have right now. But it’s not going to be a dramatic game changer.”

For now, allies are working to get the training started.

A spokesperson for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — whose country doesn’t have F-16s — said on Monday that Berlin and Washington were in “close coordination” on the plans, but stressed that the program “takes several months or even years, depending on the previous experience of the pilots.”

The spokesperson cited Spangdahlem and Ramstein as air force bases in Germany where the U.S. has F-16s stationed, offering possible sites for practice. The spokesperson declined to comment on what specific support Berlin may provide. 

Some experts have criticized the pace of decision-making. 

The U.S. administration’s “continued incremental decision-making undermines so much of the good work it has already done,” Hodges, the former U.S. general, told POLITICO on Monday. 

“If the administration would decide that it wants Ukraine to actually win this war, then all the excuses would go away, decisions would be made in time, and the full effect of Western support would bring about the quickest possible successful conclusion to this war,” he added.

Kendall, the U.S. air force secretary, underscored that the issue is a matter of priorities — and that there is now a shift to thinking ahead.  

“We could certainly have started earlier, but there were much higher priorities and it’s seen by some as an escalatory act on our part,” he said. 

How would Ukraine use F-16s? Would Russia respond?

While there were fears earlier in the conflict that providing advanced, Western fighter jets could be escalatory, officials appear to have shed those concerns — as they did earlier in the conflict on the issue of sending modern, Western tanks. 

A diplomat from a European country with F-16s said Ukraine could use the planes in different ways, including mere surveillance and defense of its airspace, and commit to not launch any bombing campaigns over Russian territory.

U.S. President Joe Biden said over the weekend that he received “a flat assurance” from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the jets will not be used in Russian territory. “But wherever Russian troops are within Ukraine in the area, they would be able to do that,” he said. 

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, warned that Western countries sending F-16s to Ukraine would incur “colossal risks for themselves,” according to Russia’s state-owned news agency Tass. Yet that’s a message Moscow has tossed out for each new stage of Western support — and the Kremlin is running out of ways to escalate further.

“There is not much they can do,” said Jones, the CSIS scholar. “I think it reflects that the concerns I think that a range of government officials have had about how the Russians might respond to more sophisticated weapons have just not proven to be accurate.”

The European diplomat said the U.S. could grow more comfortable with the idea of sending F-16s to Ukraine if Kyiv fails to make significant gains in its upcoming offensive, or if the West finds itself unable to supply Ukraine with other key needs and decides to compensate with jets.

Asked if it is realistic for Ukraine to get F-16s by the fall, a senior Central European defense official was upbeat, saying “I think it is.”

Weighing in on the same question, a senior diplomat from Eastern Europe quipped: “Why not?”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Hans von der Burchard, Jan Cienski and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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