Ukraine is itching for American warplanes, specifically the F-16. Kyiv made a plea for the Fighting Falcon at the end of August. The Ukrainian defense ministry posted on social media that “It’s time we gave our Ukrainian top guns the tools to finish the job. Ukraine needs F-16s now.” To drive the point home, Ukraine’s public affairs personnel even made a video with the music from the original Top Gun movie.
Ukraine Wants Stealth Fighters Too
Kyiv also called for next-generation fighters from the United States and NATO such as the F-35 and the F-22. Those airplanes would surely be rejected by the Americans out of hand, but the F-16 request is more realistic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to call for a no-fly zone enforced by Western air forces – in another request that has been dismissed by American allies.
But There Are High Risks
The most immediate problem with these asks from Zelenskyy is the risk involved. If foreign pilots, especially those of NATO members, when ferrying the planes to Ukraine, would be shot down by Russian anti-air defenses or warplanes, this would constitute an act of war and an Article V collective defense trigger that would require the allies to officially enter into the conflict. This is an escalation that NATO has resisted thus far.
Don’t Forget About Training
Another issue is training Ukrainians pilots to fly American fighters such as the F-16. NATO member Romania has instituted a program in which Romanian aviators made the transition to flying F-16s. Romanians and other Eastern European pilots have been training at Morris Air National Guard Base in Arizona for years. The Romanians have taken to the training so much that some of their pilots have only flown American aircraft their entire careers.
Some Support in Congress
At least two U.S. Members of Congress have noticed the Romanian example and helped pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to provide additional money toward American training for Ukrainian pilots should the F-16 ever be supplied. The idea from Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania is to set aside a provision of $100 million for instruction for the Ukrainians. This legislative effort shows there is some political appetite for granting Ukraine F-16s.
“But I frankly think that we need to be responsive to the request of the Ukrainian administration and [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, and if this is the thing that he and his country are asking for, then we need to be prepared to be able to provide it,” Houlahan told Air Force Magazine. “Some of the ways that we can be supportive might be with a variety of fighter aircraft and training,” she said.
Representative Adam Kinzinger was also a key driver of the amendment that passed by voice vote. Kinzinger and Houlahan have a bill called the Ukrainian Fighter Pilots Act which calls for training on the F-16 and the F-15.
Pilots from Ukraine Are Ready for the F-16
Ukrainian pilots have said they could be ready to fly the F-16 in a few weeks, but it would likely take much longer because of the need for maintenance and installing spare parts. Crews and technicians would also have to be trained too.
How About Attack Drones Instead?
Would Russia Test a Nuclear Weapon?
Russia would be enraged by fighters supplied by the Americans. Some options would be on the table such as Vladimir Putin’s forces launching missile strikes at bases where the airplanes are housed. Moscow could declare war on the United States. Russia could continue to cut off gas supplies to Germany. It could even test a battlefield nuclear weapon to show that Putin would be willing to do the unthinkable.
F-16s for Ukraine are probably not likely. Despite support in the U.S. House, President Joe Biden has never shown the desire to supply fighters or enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This would just be too provocative a step and would make any future cease fire or peace treaty negotiated by the United States less likely. The Ukrainians will have to fly on with what they have, and its brave pilots can act like Top Gun aviators to the best of their ability.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.