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Ukraine scrambles to host ‘prima donna’ F-16 fighter jets

by editor

KYIV ­— Ukraine is preparing for the arrival of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon jets in the next months — but incorporating the single-engine supersonic fighter into its arsenal will take more than training pilots.

More than 60 F-16s are being offered by Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, while a multinational coalition is currently training pilots and crews. The jets are a response to pleas from Kyiv to help even the odds against the Russian air force in the skies over Ukraine.

But getting the fighters flying will be hugely difficult. The bases will be prime targets for Russian attack, the planes themselves will be marked by Russian air defense systems, repairing them will be a challenge and even using unprepared runways could sabotage the delicate aircraft.

Tom Richter, a former U.S. Marine pilot who has flown the F-16 when in the National Guard, said the plane is “a sensitive beast” compared to the Soviet-era MiG and Sukhoi jets the Ukrainians are used to flying and maintaining.

“If you ever walked up and put your hands on a MiG-29 at an air show and then walked right over and put your hands on an F-16, you can feel just from the outside how the F-16 is highly engineered. It is a prima donna, and it is very sensitive and needs high maintenance,” said Richter, who used the call sign T-Bone. The Soviet planes are more “rough and tumble” and can fly off poorly maintained airfields, and need less maintenance.

In a different situation, Ukraine would build modern bases and runways to host the jets, but that’s not possible during the war.

“Falcons indeed need some adaptation — this is the preparation of the runways because the landing gear is more delicate in the MiGs, the wheels are small, the air intakes are low to the strip, there may be a danger of swallowing objects. But all this can be solved. There are risks for all aviation,” Yuriy Ihnat, spokesperson of the Ukrainian air force, told POLITICO.

That care will extend to deploying teams with sealant to cover cracks and crevices or uneven concrete on runways as close to the frontline as possible to avoid making an obvious target out of just a few well-maintained sites, said Justin Bronk with the Royal United Services Institute think tank.  

“For a start, runways and taxi routes at multiple sites will need to be smooth and constantly checked for debris given how susceptible the low-slung, single-engine F-16s are to ground debris compared to MiG-29s,” he said.

Soviet-era planes

That’s a drastic change from the jets the Ukrainians are currently flying.

At the beginning of 2022, Ukraine had 71 Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters, 14 Su-24M bombers, and 31 Su-25 attack aircraft, according to the annual Military Balance report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ukraine started 2022 with 14 Su-24M bombers | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

The 2024 report says Ukraine has 78 combat capable aircraft. In the third year of the war, Russia has 1,169 such aircraft.   

Since the start of the invasion, Slovakia and Poland have also transfered about 33 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine — many with updated avionics and weapons to bring them up to NATO standards.

The F-16s, in service with Western air forces for 45 years, will both bulk up Ukraine’s air force and give it much more powerful capabilities against its Russian enemies.

“The F-16 will significantly improve the effectiveness of our aviation. A pilot will be able to control missiles from the air, determining the target. He can receive real intelligence in a combat environment and make appropriate decisions about hitting targets. Plus, it will be possible to use air-to-air missiles. Which can fly up to 180 kilometers,” Ihnat said.

That will prove crucial in battlefields where Ukraine’s soldiers are being pummelled by Russian air-dropped glide bombs and missiles.

The first planes should show up by this summer, the Danish defense ministry said.

“It is difficult to set a fixed timetable for the donation of F-16 fighter jets, because there are several conditions that must be met in order for Ukraine to use the donated aircraft,” Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said, highlighting the adaptation that needs to happen before the jets can fly from Ukrainian airfields.

Preparing the ground

There’s the mundane requirement to make sure everything from toolkits to spare parts and stands is in place — along with equipment to safely manage hydrazine, a highly flammable liquid used to power the F-16s emergency backup system.

While Ukrainian pilots and crews are undergoing training to fly and maintain F-16s, it’s almost certain that highly-specialized Western contractors will also need to be in the country to oversee work, said Bronk from RUSI.

Kyiv’s soldiers need to learn how to repair, maintain, and hide the Falcons from Russian radars, spies, and satellites. “Our technicians and aviation engineers are also currently being trained in the West alongside our pilots. They are the base of our land personnel,” Ihnat said.

Ihnat argued that F-16s are easier, more modern and automated than MiGs. “It is like a constructor jet. You can just take out one broken element and send it for repairs,” he said, adding: “It is the most common jet in the world. One, it is easy to maintain. Two, it can perform the tasks that Ukraine needs at this stage of the war.”

That’s echoed by the troops being trained on the airplanes.

Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Initiative United 24 published a video of Ukrainian pilots and engineers completing training in Denmark.

“Initially when we first got acquainted with the system it seemed incomprehensible to us and unrealistic to integrate into Ukrainian reality. But now I understand that it simplifies the work a lot, saves time, and worth us moving forward. If we want to develop as a country, as an air force,” said Ukrainian technician identified as Ihor.

The pilots are also keen to get flying.

“It is really super fun jet to fly. The F-16 is more agile. It feels like the jet wants you to fly it more aggressively,” said a Ukrainian pilot with the call-sign Moonfish.

This article has been updated to clarify that Tom Richter flew the F-16 in the National Guard.

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