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This Picture Would Make Putin Sweat: If F-16s Flew for Ukraine

F-16 Elephant Walk
U.S. Air Force 52nd Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcons line up in formation on the runway for a show of forces display at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Oct. 1, 2019. The 52nd FW has a suppression of enemy air defenses mission and must be able to respond to emerging competitors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry)

You would think the Ukrainians would be overjoyed to receive the A-10 Warthog. The aircraft would help defenders eliminate even more Russian tanks and armored vehicles. But the Ukrainian military instead wants to go with the F-16 Fighting Falcon for close air support and dogfighting – that is, if Kyiv’s wish-list for combat airplanes is ever addressed. The U.S. military has half-heartedly considered giving Ukraine the older A-10s that are being retired by the Indiana Air National Guard, but Ukraine’s defense minister says the A-10 is too slow and susceptible to being shot down by Russian fighters and air-defense systems. 

The F-16 Is the Popular Choice

Ukraine believes the F-16 is the answer, as it has a reputation for being a fast and versatile aircraft. Even if the Ukrainians wanted A-10s to blast away at Russia’s armored columns, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has in the past thrown cold water at the idea of a potential deal for these planes. “I’m not aware of any current plan, or even any discussion of a current plan to field or provide A-10s to the Ukrainians,” Kendall told the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in March.

Kendall also said on July 20 that the threat the A-10 could address in Ukraine is evolving, and the Warthog would not meet combat needs. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley agreed, as did Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “A-10s do not meet that bar,” Milley said

Further, the A-10 has never been exported in its history.

What About Other Allied Planes?

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown believes Ukraine could get fighter planes from other countries. “There’s U.S.[-made], there’s the Gripen out of Sweden, there’s the Eurofighter, there’s the Rafale [from France],” said Brown. 

While the White House has resisted Ukraine’s calls to send U.S. fighter jets, observers are wondering if the Air Force is starting to finally consider it. Kendall appeared to say “no way” in March, but Brown is now at least discussing the possibility of some model of fighter making its way to Ukraine. This could be good news for Kyiv; its air force would love to fly fighters from the United States or other countries.

The Air Force would have to train Ukrainian pilots – a process that could take months. Just in case American war planes are ever transferred to Ukraine, the U.S. House of Representatives in July earmarked $100 million for training Ukrainian pilots on U.S. aircraft. The Senate has to vote on the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act before the money is fully approved by Congress.

Ukrainian Air Force Flying Obsolete Fighters

Ukrainian pilots are prodding the Americans to make a decision soon on sending F-16s or F-15s to Kyiv. The aviators are not happy with their fighters. Their older MiG-29s are no match for more modern Russian warplanes.

F-16

U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Manning, the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, and Col. David Meyer, the commander of the 169th Operations Group, both with the South Carolina Air National Guard, receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard while flying an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft over Eastover, S.C., Nov. 12, 2013. The F-16 was flown back to South Carolina from temporary duty at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson, U.S. Air National Guard/Released).

Abraham Mahshie of Air Force Magazine interviewed a worried Ukrainian pilot. “Every one of us understands that we have a lack of capability in old airplanes,” the pilot said. “The Russian airplanes have much more capabilities. They usually fly beyond visual range. They usually use missiles that have a range of more than 80 miles.” Some Ukrainian fighters lack radar for night fighting. They must depend on heat-seeking missiles and cannons with visual sight against Russian warplanes.

Ukrainian artillerists have learned quickly when taught about ground defense systems, but obviously a fighter plane is more complex than, say, a towed artillery piece. Still, Ukrainian aviators believe they can be trained effectively in the United States to fly the F-16. The final decision is up to U.S. President Joe Biden, who has shown he is willing to provide arms packages worth over $8 billion to Ukraine. More modern fighter planes would be decisive in aerial combat against the Russian air force, but Ukraine may have to wait.   

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

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