F-16 Fighters for Ukraine? After a year of reluctance to send weapons to the embattled nation of Ukraine, Western leaders have put together a unified resolve not seen since World War II. Having had enough of Russia’s nuclear and energy threats, and seeing the valiant resistance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, NATO’s leaders have realized Kyiv needs weaponry to win the war, and not just weaponry to stabilize the front lines.
Ukraine will now receive powerful and efficient Leopard 2 and M1A2 Abrams tanks being sent to Ukraine, with the Leopards on their way this upcoming spring. Kyiv has been grateful for the shipments as officials are currently planning a southern offensive, using combined arms operations that helped them liberate Kharkiv and the left bank of Kherson.
But has the time come for Ukraine to also get western-created fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon?
Ukraine Getting the F-16?
The biggest request thus far for Ukraine has been the F-16, one of the most battle evaluated and combat proven jets in the U.S arsenal.
Immediately after the request, there were signs that Washington is open to potential modern aircraft transfers. This has caused great debate as Russia has used nuclear bluffs to install fears over the country’s support.
In the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden Administration was skeptical of any aircraft being sent to Kyiv, as Putin ordered some of his rocket forces on active status to instill fear over potential support during his war of conquest. The original MiG-29 transfer that Poland wanted to send Ukraine was vetoed by Washington in early March.
The Slow Transfer of More Modern Weapons
When Russian forces committed massacres in places such as Bucha, Mariupol, and Irpin, and Ukraine’s armed forces (ZSU) showed it could repel them, the call was made to gradually send the early 1990s HIMARS to hit Russian supply lines and command centers. These systems helped turn the tide of the war as the ZSU would use the weapons to cut off logistical routes, leaving the Russian military unable to sustain key positions in places such as Kherson.
As the war progressed into the late autumn, a frustrated Kremlin, under pressure from hardliners for poor effort, decided to use the ‘Aleppo’ and ‘Grozny’ tactics to indiscriminately target infrastructure. This escalation gave western nations a green light for air defense systems to be sent to Ukraine.
The F-16 Debate: More of the Same?
The F-16 has been seen by the Kremlin and its bloggers as a “grave escalation,” and many in the anti-war and isolationist factions in the West have also raised concern, but just the prospect of sending them has made Putin’s inner circle rattle. Nonetheless, the Kremlin reiterated for months that Javelins, HIMARS, and tanks were “red lines,” yet their bluffs were called each time.
Recently, Ukraine stated it only expects to receive 24 Western jets, which is a probable chance of a combined joint pledge which could NATO states send their older models in return for being backfilled by the U.S without having to send more than a handful of the model. With a small amount being sent, it would send the message that escalation will continue to be only in the court of the Kremlin.
Russia Is the Aggressor
We should keep in mind one key fact: Russia is the aggressor and the reason Ukraine needs such weapons in the first place.
The entire war so far has been an escalation by Russia as during the initial stages, the Kremlin denied an invasion would take place and that it was western warmongering. Then, when the invasion happened, they used the pretext of “genocide,” of Russian speakers—though Russian speaking cities such as Mariupol, Bakhmut, and Severodonetsk have been razed to the ground by RF.
Moscow has gradually escalated every time they suffered a military setback, such as mass executions in Bucha after their expulsion from the north, the partial mobilization after the ZSU liberation of Kharkiv, and civilian infrastructure strikes after the bombing on the Kerch Bridge and liberation of Kherson.
Western countries have been slowly sending evermore advances weapons every time Putin continues to escalate the war – rather than withdraw, which his traditional allies of India, Serbia, and China have suggested. Even Iran, which actively arms Russia, has refused to recognize their annexations and sees Moscow’s tone as overly provocative.
The western approach to weapons transfers has, indeed, been quite cautious. The U.S and Europe originally refused to send long range missiles to Ukraine, in fear their weapons would be used on Russian soil. As Ukraine’s adaptive weapons industry created their own means of striking key Russian military targets on their own, the Kremlin no longer has a pretext of stating the West has escalated the war.
Here is one idea: A potential F-16 transfer is granted if they’re only used to expel occupying Russian forces. This further puts Moscow under international pressure to withdraw, as only a handful of rogue states, such as Syria, Belarus, Eritrea, Nicaragua, and North Korea recognize the illegal occupations and annexations.
With Kyiv gaining key victories this past year and Putin potentially preparing a new wave of mobilization and giving hardline warlords like Yevgeny Prigozhin more power to conduct personal offensives, the autocrat has signaled he plans on escalating the war. This would make new weapons transfers to Ukraine a defensive measure. It should be noted now Poland and Slovakia could send their MiGs without Washington sending F-16s directly to Ukraine, as they can backfill our NATO allies’ airspace with the modern jets.
It will be interesting to see if and when an F-16 transfer happens, as it’ll take months to train Ukrainian pilots if POTUS gives the go ahead. The war is now in a crucial phase—Ukraine needs weapons to win, as Russia will continue to militarily escalate as long as they think they are militarily capable of achieving their objectives.
As long as Moscow thinks it has a chance of overthrowing the Ukrainian government and making the nation landlocked under ‘Novorossiya,’ Kyiv should have the tools it needs to militarily weaken Russia to where it will not pose a threat for decades.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”