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How the F-16 Fighter Could Transform the Ukraine War


F-16 Fighters for Ukraine? Now that the United States and European powers have pledged to supply Ukraine with heavy armor, some are confident that high performance aircraft are the next logical step. Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, recently told CNBC, “We will get F-16s.” However, if they do get them, then what?

Why the F-16 Is Important To Ukraine

So far, at least, the air war in Ukraine has been anticlimactic. At the outbreak of the conflict, it was reasonable to assume that the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) would swiftly destroy Ukraine’s air forces, obtain air dominance, and that air would play an important part of combined arms operations against Ukrainian ground troops. There would have been wide-ranging strategic air ops targeting Ukrainian transport, supply, communications and command nodes. That is, one could have assumed that Russia would own the skies the way the United States, NATO, Israel, or other advanced forces would when facing a weaker foe.

But this has not been the case. A study by RUSI released last November found that while the VKS was able to mount some significant fixed-wing strike missions in the opening weeks of the war, by March “the VKS lost the ability to operate in Ukrainian-controlled airspace except at very low altitudes due to its inability to reliably suppress or destroy increasingly effective, well-dispersed and mobile Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.” As a result, deep strike missions for both sides have been conducted by stand-off air attacks or ground-based rocket and missile launches, while drones have played a fascinating new role at the tactical level.

As a result, there may be an opening for Ukraine to utilize high performance aircraft like the F-16 to achieve a measure of local superiority in support of offensive operations to restore movement to the battlefield. The attrition war of the last several months favors Moscow, since it has numbers on its side and the Russian leadership is more than willing to trade Russian lives for Ukrainian ones. Against this backdrop, the promised western tanks will provide the type of ground component needed for Ukraine to even the odds. And adding advanced air capabilities would represent a significant force multiplier. It would transform the current status quo – which Ukrainian pilots have likened to flying “suicide missions” against Russian jets – and level the playing field, making the skies over Ukraine safer for Ukrainian fighters and other aircraft by suppressing Russian air defenses.

Sending jets to Ukraine would not be an immediate gamer-changer, however. There would be a large footprint and large cost for supplying this type of assistance. Pilot and crew training, maintenance, resupply, refueling and sustainment would all have to be worked out. Then there would be the questions of how to employ the aircraft, controlling them during operations, and generally integrating them into the structure of Ukraine’s air forces. All of these issues are manageable, of course, but they will take time.

F-16: How Would Russia Respond?

Then there is the matter of Russia’s response. The VKS has been cautious about flying missions, given the effectiveness of Ukraine’s air defenses. And Russian air power suffers from other systemic problems, including a lack of trained pilots and poor ground crews. But, on balance, Russians have still been successful against Ukrainians who take to the air. Russian Su-35s, properly equipped and piloted, would at least be competitive against F-16s, though the longer reach of the latter, both in terms of detection capability and weapons range, could well be decisive.

The difference would be in numbers. The west would not have large numbers of replacement aircraft to ship to Ukraine, whereas Russia, if the ground war is any indication, will throw in whatever they have to gradually whittle down the Ukrainian squadrons. They will also replenish destroyed air defenses as needed. The loss ratio may be high, but Putin seems not to care. So, it would be vital for Ukraine to shepherd its new air resources to preserve them for the big push, wherever and whenever that happens.

A final potential challenge is in the diplomatic realm. Russia will claim, rightly, that providing advanced aircraft to Ukraine amounts to escalating the conflict. Avoiding escalation was the rationale for the Biden administration blocking Poland from transferring jets at the outbreak of the conflict, reportedly as part of a deal with Beijing to defuse Russia’s nuclear threats.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated recently that President Biden “has always been emphatic that one of his requirements in Ukraine is that there be no World War III.” This is a useful requirement, to say the least, but it is not up to Biden alone. Putin also has a vote on escalation.

Given all of the above, both Kyiv and its partners in the West should be thinking about how to leverage the growing lethal aid at Ukraine’s disposal for political purposes, and seek an end to the conflict from a position of future strength. Advanced air power in the form of the F-16 might soon become part of this equation.

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Author Biography and Expertise 

James S. Robbins is senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and Dean of Academics at the Institute of World Politics.

Written By

Dr. James S. Robbins is a columnist for USA Today and Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council. Dr. Robbins is a former special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in 2007 was awarded the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Meritorious Civilian Service Award. He is also the former award-winning Senior Editorial Writer for Foreign Affairs at the Washington Times. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review and other publications. He appears regularly on international television and radio including the BBC, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, among others. Dr. Robbins hold a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has taught at the National Defense University and Marine Corps University, among other schools. His research interests include terrorism and national security strategy, political theory and military history. Dr. Robbins is the author of The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive; and the critically acclaimed Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point.



  1. DONALD D. Plowden

    January 31, 2023 at 9:23 am

    The F-16 would be a greater advantage for the Ukrainian Airforce to seek out offensive positions of the Russian military and to target missiles coming from Russia with satellite detection capabilities.

  2. Jim

    January 31, 2023 at 10:12 am

    The author presents a fair summary of what F-16’s could do if provided to Ukraine.

    Per the article, if I’m reading it correctly: F-16’s would help Ukraine, but they wouldn’t be a so-called “game changer.” (How many times have we been told such and such a weapon system would be a game changer?)

    At this point in time, the author is right to be cautious in predictions (many predictions in this war have turned out to be wrong).

    The headline: “How The F-16 Fighter Could Transform The Ukraine War” is curious because the article doesn’t suggest F-16’s could “transform” the war, rather, they would significantly help Ukraine.

    Well, any help at this juncture would be much appreciated I’m sure, but help isn’t enough to transform the war in Ukraine’s favor.

    Frankly, short of tactical nukes (that’s a big no, no… I hope everybody agrees) there is no conventional game changer, no wonder weapons that will turn the tide.

    Does the U. S. want to see F-16 fall from the skies over Ukraine?

    Does the U. S. want minimum trained pilots flying F-16’s?

    Depends what you want. If your goal is to say, “we did all we could within reason,” then send the F-16’s.

    But don’t claim it’s a game changer.

    There are no game changers in this war of attrition.

    The Russians have the all important ‘initiative’ at present… as demonstrated by everybody waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” and Russia to launch a true combined arms offensive maneuver.

    Neither side has executed a “Big Arrow” combined arms offensive in this war.

    The world waits…

    The 64 Dollar question, how does the world react… particularly if Russia executes a true “shock & awe” offensive in Eastern Ukraine?

  3. froike

    January 31, 2023 at 12:29 pm

    OK…but I agree, it would not be a “game changer”. First, lets consider how many versions of The F16 there are. Some NATO Countries fly The Original, F-16A. These are the Old, non updated versions.
    There are big differences between recent models and the older F16A’s.
    If upgraded, recent models were to be delivered, they would certainly provide a greater advantage to Ukraine.

  4. Jim

    January 31, 2023 at 12:42 pm

    What the author did not address:

    How the F-16 fits into the escalation ladder?

    While an M1 Abrams is considered an offensive weapon, in this instant, it would only be a “Big Arrow” offensive weapon, if Abrams tank columns poured into the Melitopol Gap & beyond to the Sea of Azov and on to Crimea.

    How likely is that?

    F-16’s on the hand can make “in & out” runs into Russia… bombing targets in Crimea and/or Russia proper… breaking containment of the theater of battle.

    The best way to prevent or avoid a General European War is to contain the battlefield… to the eastern border of Ukraine.

    Moscow knows that.

    Does Washington know that?

    (Does Washington Care?)

    The danger of escalation with ever more sophisticated & powerful weapons is that it enlarges the battlefield, which pushes us ever closer to a General European War.

    The F-16 has that potential… although, in itself, is more like the Abrams tank’s impact on the war than some super duper wonder weapon… a wave of the wand… so to speak.

    But the potential for provocative acts… enlarging the battlefield increases.

    Some have said Russia has escalation dominance.

    How much risk is Washington willing to engage in to take ‘escalation dominance’ away from Russia… and how close to the edge… of General European War or worse… does that take us?

  5. Rick

    January 31, 2023 at 12:50 pm


    Nobody expects and “shock and awe” from Russia given their need to go to NK and Iran for weapons. Every time new arms come from the West Putin starts with the saber rattling and empty threats. All we seen from Russia is “whimper and snivel”.

  6. Sofronie the monk

    January 31, 2023 at 2:47 pm

    “if Russia executes a true “shock & awe” offensive in Eastern Ukraine?”

    And how exactly are they going to do that? The Russian version includes shock as in sending shock troops like in WW2 and awe as in propagandists singing praises for the invincible Red Army.

  7. Malik Zakari

    January 31, 2023 at 4:52 pm

    The Ukrainian and Russian air doctrine is heavily air access denial. Both rely on ground air defence. Providing F-16S for Ukraine will only lead to more escalation and perhaps death of precious pilots that the west would have spent so much money & time to train.

  8. 404NotFound

    January 31, 2023 at 6:07 pm

    The horse has already blared his big mouth – “No f-16s for ukros…”

    But how long will that lie last. The antichrist of the 21st century will send anything to his foot soldiers except maybe b61s and his son.

  9. Walker

    January 31, 2023 at 6:17 pm

    There is not a single weapon that is a “game changer”. War is about successfully employing strategy and tactics. That includes weapons. That means it won’t be a single weapon that wins the war, it will be the sum total of everything. So giving Ukraine the tools is only half the equation. They have to use them to their best effect and furthermore, Russia has to do the opposite. So far Russia is meeting that expectation royally. So Ukraine has some real hope and therefore it makes sense to give them the tools.

    If you asked anyone at the beginning of this conflict if US would give Abram tanks, most would have said, very unlikely and yet we are doing so. The point is that the weapons we give have to be done so slowly. We have to slowly boil the pot that Russia is in. It’s OK that Russia screams nukes as long as they don’t get stupid enough to use them. That is why we must give the weapons more conservatively than what Ukraine would like.

    As to the dumb Russians that say that we should be careful that we don’t piss Russia off. My question is what is Russia waiting for? If Russia could have taken Ukraine, why haven’t they done so already? There is no possible explanation for it except that Russia can’t do so. They way they wastefully spend troops for little gain show exactly how desperate they are.

  10. Johnny Ray

    January 31, 2023 at 9:40 pm

    A few tanks, a few F16s or a few any other weapon will not “transform” this war.

    What I see coming is yet another “forever war” with blowhard politicians trying triangulate resources in such a way as to offend the least number of critics. That’s in no way a winning strategy.

    What will transform this war is for Europe to FULLY commit to a massive use of war fighting force to defeat Russian aggression with complete withdrawal from Crimea, Donbas, Kherson, etc. as the criteria to gauge victory or defeat.

    Honestly, I don’t see that coming. What I see is thumb twiddling and indecision.

    Luckily, Ukraine knows their country and very lives are in jeopardy so they are bleeding the Russians in such a way as to slow them down. But, they can’t defeat Russia by themselves or with a few cool weapons.

    Europe needs to rise to the occasion. Now. I have doubts they will.

    As long as Russia still holds Crimea, Donbas and in between, they are winning. Make no mistake of it.

  11. Jim

    January 31, 2023 at 11:21 pm

    I suppose Ukraine has hope… there is always hope.

    But how realistic is that hope?

    Yes, it’s a combination of men & material, field tactics and strategic thinking.

    But Ukraine’s military has not performed an offensive beyond the Kharkiv & Kherson actions… which in my opinion were not full-throated combined arms maneuvers.

    So, for Ukraine to have any hope they will have to do something they haven’t done before (at the start of the war the Ukraine military was in its best fighting shape, yet, it did not carry out big offensives).

    Biden administration officials have talked about creating a strategic strike force.

    How likely is that to happen on the fly in the middle of the war if Ukraine didn’t do it when they were at the peak of their power?

    Now, one can say the strategy at the start of the war for the Ukraine military was defensive in nature because they thought Russia would economically freeze up as a result of the sanctions and politically fracture (including the military) and when that didn’t work… Ukraine was hoping Russia would run out of weapons and/or men. That didn’t work either.

    The defensive strategy did not work.

    Russia holds the initiative and it’s doubtful Ukraine can create a strategic strike force on the fly.

    Realism dictates you don’t hope for something which is unlikely to happen.

    But sadly often when desperation takes over… magical thinking intrudes into the councils of war.

    It’s hard to admit you lost.

  12. CRS, DrPH

    February 1, 2023 at 12:27 pm

    The only way that this war ends is with continued, wholesale slaughter of Russian ground troops.

    I wonder if the Boeing AH-64 “Apache” helicopter would be a better tool to accomplish this? Loaded with modern missiles & other weapons, these things are deadly.

    Search for “show force gilligans island mosul iraq dec 04” on YouTube for a great demonstration of these platforms in action.

  13. Jim

    February 1, 2023 at 1:49 pm

    CRS, this forever war stop via one of two possible ways:

    The U. S. pulls the plug on military support.

    Ukraine is beaten on the field of battle.

    (Probably a combination of the two.)

    There is little reason to think it will end with Ukraine victorious… the real questions are what will Ukraine look like @ the end and who will be in power of what is left.

  14. froike

    February 1, 2023 at 2:26 pm

    My contention: Too little too late. Ukraine should have been armed to the Teeth after the Russian Invasion of Crimea. Putler would have thought twice about invading a Country armed with US/NATO Weaponry.

  15. Kenneth miller

    February 2, 2023 at 4:49 pm

    I would bet the Ukrainian’s are training on F16s right now.

  16. Quartermaster

    February 4, 2023 at 6:06 pm

    “They have to use them to their best effect and furthermore, Russia has to do the opposite. So far Russia is meeting that expectation royally.”

    The only thing Russia is doing is spending Russian blood and failing badly. If given the proper weapons, I have no doubt that Ukraine can expel Putin completely from Ukraine. At present Putin isn’t winning. he’s simply trying to take land by sending a metric ton of cannon fodder at the Ukrainians. They’re getting killed nearly as fast as Putin sends them in. That’s not winning, and what they hold at the moment doesn’t matter a whit as long as Putin is wasting blood as he is.

  17. Joseph Pallone

    February 4, 2023 at 10:18 pm

    Excellent analysis and insight. We cannot predict how the F-16 will affect the tactical situation, but its introduction could have significant strategic implcations for Putin personally as he continues to rack up failures on the battlefield, the economy, and Russia’s standing internationally. We cannot judge Putin’s prospects by viewing his domestic situation through a western lens, but I think we can speculate on how much longer the Russian power structure will tolerate this jumped-up KGB lieutenant colonel as he continues to drag Russia down the drain. Raising the stakes with main battle tanks, longer range rocket artillery, and hints of F-16s could tip the strategic scales.

  18. Ron W

    February 6, 2023 at 8:38 pm

    So after 1 year of war, neither country owns the airspace. Why, shoulder held rockets and sophisticated missiles. The battlefield has changed and these two are battling with outdated weaponry and WWII tactics. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan should explain how this war will go. The future will be drones and robotics.

  19. Outlander570

    February 8, 2023 at 7:08 am

    Wouldn’t the A10 be a better option? Low flying, tank busting, and armed to the teeth. Can take a pounding also…

  20. Mack CArson

    February 14, 2023 at 7:07 pm

    We should be giving them longer range missiles/Drones. and the jets.
    Give them reach to St Petersburg at least. Flatten the joint giving Russkies a taste of what they giving Ukraine.
    Even that idiot isn’t crazy/Stupid enuff to pop off Nukes.
    He knows wherever he hides after. The air is unbreathable for anything that breathes.
    I was in UK Army in West Germany in the ’50’s,early ’60’s when fence there, B4 wall was built. We were Nuclear Missile Battery’s and saw first hand the consequences of that shit.
    Advice. IF anybody does pop one off. Run TOWARDS it. not away.You won’t like the condition of this planet if they all start. It’ll be the end of EVERYTHING. animal and vegetable as we know it for thousands of yrs

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