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Time to Train Ukraine on F-16 Fighter Jets

F-16 Viper
An Air Force F-16 Viper taxis just a few hundred feet from the wall of fire at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, Oct. 28, 2017 at Fort Worth, Texas. (Courtesy photo by Air Force Viper Demo Team)

Start Training Ukrainians on F-16s Now: As the first anniversary of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine nears, Ukraine continues to make progress on the battlefield. Absent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ouster or death, however, Russia shows no willingness to concede defeat or evacuate all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

Putin believes time is on his side and that he can win a war of attrition, especially given the White House’s decision to limit Ukraine’s arsenal to weapons that cannot strike deep into Russia.

While President Joe Biden may believe this contains the war, in reality it prolongs it as it enables Russian factories to restock their arsenals or artillery, bombs, and drones.

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While, in the short-term, Ukraine needs tanks—U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks and German Leopard-2 tanks—in the long-term, Ukraine also needs jet-fighters. While Ukrainians can operate Abrams and Leopards after only rump training, it cannot afford as many training short cuts with modern aircraft.

In July 2022, David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies who, during his Air Force career directed the Combined Air Operations Center at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, argued in an essay that the United States should provide Ukraine with airpower. “Ukrainian pilots with ample fighter experience could quickly adapt to F-15s and F-16s if so enabled and would most likely wield a notable proficiency edge over their Russian opponents.”

Indeed, as he noted, the California Air National Guard has a three-decade relationship with Ukraine that has included an exchange relationship involving F-15s and F-16s. Nor are existing stockpiles the issue. The U.S. Air Force currently mothballs A-10 Warthog, F-15C/D and F-16C/D fighters, and RQ-4 Surveillance Drones.

While Biden has not approved dispatch of F-16s to Ukraine, prudence and experience suggests Washington should consider a decision to train Ukrainians on F-16s and a decision to provide Ukraine with F-16s to be mutually exclusive. At the beginning of the Kosovo conflict in 1999, President Bill Clinton assured both his Democratic base and Russia that U.S. ground forces would not enter Kosovo. As the situation changed, however, Clinton realized the mission required U.S. helicopters among other platforms, and some ground troops. The problem was he had not prepared any staging grounds nearer to Kosovo. When Clinton asked Secretary of Defense William Cohen to send Apache helicopter gunships from Germany to nearby Albania, the Pentagon informed the White House that it could take up to three months to get the necessary equipment in place. Had Clinton moved helicopters at the beginning of the conflict, he could then have had a range of options on the table whenever he made a decision.

At present, it takes approximately two years to move F-16 pilots from the simulator to mastery of the F-16s itself. If perfection need not be enemy of the good, then perhaps Ukrainians who begin training this month could be operating F-16s independently by summer 2024. A complete course of training would bring Ukrainian F-16 pilots into 2025. Such training would not force any decision, but it would keep all options on the table rather than force Ukraine and its allies to weather a two-year delay once Biden or a successor gives a green light.

It is likely that such a decision will come eventually. “Our political and military leadership has been stressing the importance of advance training of Ukrainian pilots for a long time,” Yuriy Sak, advisor to the Ukrainian defense ministry told me. “As was the case with other types of Western weapons systems, the political decision to provide Ukraine the fourth generation fighter jets will be made sooner or later. The earlier we start training our pilots, the sooner they will be ready to efficiently use the jets.”

Of course, Biden may never decide to provide F-16s. In such a situation, however, the United States would lose little. Ukrainian pilots would simply better understand the platform’s capabilities and mechanisms.

No harm, no foul.

Still, Biden should not deny any successor the right to make that decision, though. Greenlighting training now would have an important psychological effect. It would both be a shot of adrenalin into Ukrainian morale, and show both the Kremlin and ordinary Russians that Putin’s desire to wear down Ukraine and the West will never work. Rather, the longer Russia continues its assault, the worse the strategic situation will become for Russia and the more Russians will come home in body bags.

Biden says, “Diplomacy is back.” Allowing Ukrainians to train on F-16s now would be a win-win: It would add heft to that diplomacy today and could add capability to Ukraine’s military tomorrow. 

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Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. froike

    January 11, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    This should have started Months Ago. They should also train on Swedish Aircraft.

  2. Commentar

    January 11, 2023 at 4:19 pm

    Time to train ukros how to drop B61s.

    That would bring the russian-NATO war in ukraine to an immediate halt.

    History in later years, or in the far-off future, would dwell on the great einsteinique brilliance of an 80-yr-old man who came up with the idea of igniting war against a nuclear power on his front doorstep.

    In order to thumb his nose at a rival for supporting a competitor at home.

    A million thanks for unlocking the gates of Megiddo.

  3. Friend

    January 11, 2023 at 4:21 pm

    Russia is in totality paid and maintained by the Republican Party.
    The budget of the russian federation is in whole paid by the Republican Party.
    Basically, russia only exists because it is paid for by the Republican Party.
    The Republican Party is the sole sponsor of the Vagner PMC.

  4. Jim

    January 11, 2023 at 4:45 pm

    Escalations, sometimes small, sometimes large.

    Where does it end?

    Suppose the author and his fellow travelers get every one of their desired escalations… and victory still eludes them. What then?

    Is there a point of escalation which is a “bridge too far” for those that support additional weapons systems?

    Is there a situational development on the battlefield which signals defeat for Ukraine that war supporters will acknowledge as decisive and then recognize settlement talks, negotiations, should take place that recognize “territorial realities” as Putin put it?

    Can the author and others in the war camp accept defeat?

    Never?

    How much resources, money spent & economic damage, has to happen? How much of a doormat does the average citizen have to accept in order to keep war supporters happy.

    Ukraine is a tool in their minds… to weaken Russia, so says Sec. of Def. Austin. Do any of the warhawks care how badly Ukraine is damaged… are they concerned about Ukraine, its people, and society?

    When do their claims become obviously insincere?

    When do these people simply get ignored… and Realists take over from people who promised victory, but only brought defeat & ruin?

    The sanctions never worked.

    At some point military weapons escalation will be just like the sanctions.

    A failure… even if Ukraine gets F-16… or any other weapons system…

    There are no wonder weapons that will bring victory.

    Get to know it.

  5. abraham lincoln

    January 11, 2023 at 5:20 pm

    That last I heard is that the Ukrainian air bases are fairly rough airstrips compared to Western strips. The F-16 nose wheel is said to have collapsed on trying to land there. The soviet planes were made to be rugged enough to land on rough airstrips, the F-16 is not. So even if they are trained and given the planes, they may have to redo their airstrips to be able to use them effectively

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    January 11, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    If air superiority in this war isn’t possible, then providing Ukraine with an air force is an insanely expensive wasted effort. UAVs are the way to add air combat power to Ukraine, and that’s what Ukraine is already doing. The West should just help Ukraine stand up their own UAV force, and add what smart weapons (Hellfires, Griffins, APKWS, etc.), electronics (laser designators, encryption, etc.), and other materials Ukraine needs to accomplish that task.

    Just say “no” to manned aircraft for Ukraine.

  7. Cheburator

    January 11, 2023 at 5:45 pm

    Are you running wild again?
    Russia completely controls the sky over Ukraine, both with air superiority and with an air defense system that covers Ukraine to the border with Poland and Hungary – I remind you that Russia shot down Ukrainian planes over Western Ukraine.
    What planes need to be delivered to Ukraine, and most importantly, in what quantity.
    F16, even in the most modern variations, this is generally an outdated aircraft, and it can only act against ground targets in conditions of suppressed enemy air defense, but when the enemy has three air defense echelons + superiority in aviation, it’s a controlled target, with a human.
    There is information that Russia uses the Su-57 in the war zone, which was not recorded by the advanced electronic intelligence means of either Ukraine or NATO, and this leads to disturbing thoughts about the potential of the Su-57.
    And again an attempt to tease the bear.

  8. openresty

    January 11, 2023 at 5:53 pm

    F-16s for Ukraine.

    Very soon, or inevitably, followed by NATO-British-US-Turk-german ground forces in eastern ukraine.

    That’s why STRATFOR boss in early November 2022 blurted out that the war in Ukraine is just a ‘warmup.’

    A warmup for the Big One.

    World War Three in the Pacific. Or the mother of all wars and the Slaughter of all slaughters.

    US is such a warmongering entity it hankers so very greatly for Armageddon to take place or to happen in our lifetime.

    Not even Germany or Japan at the height of their power was this bloodthirsty.

    The only way to stop the rampaging and growing out of control US-UK-NATO-Turk-german horde is the all-out use of tactical nukes followed by (if needed) megaton-class thermo warheads.

  9. GhostTomahawk

    January 11, 2023 at 8:09 pm

    Nope.

    Look at all the reports of our equipment hitting the black market.

    Time to walk away from this and let the dirty laundry come out.

  10. Cerberus

    January 11, 2023 at 10:53 pm

    Someone is slacking ! It’s widely known that at least 30 Ukrainian pilots have been training on F-16’s for several months already. A similar number have been training on F-18. They absolutely will not be getting M1 Abrams as it’s simply too complex and intensive to maintain. They now have a few dozen Leopard II’s and a few dozen Challenger II’s on the way and they are likely there already. Much easier to maintain and still vastly superior to any T series tank.

  11. John R. Shanahan

    January 11, 2023 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you. I wholeheartedly agree. I have been hoping for months that such training would begin.

    Increasing Ukranian capabilities incrementally as we have been doing is supposedly out of caution. I believe it is riskier and more costly. It prolongs the war. The human and physical costs grow. The stakes become higher for both sides as losses mount possibly making peace harder to obtain. The risk of a frozen conflict and all of the increased costs that go with that grows.

    I am much relieved with AMX-10s, Bradleys, and Marders on the way. It looks like western main battle tanks will follow soon after.

    I look forward to the next Ukranian offensive.

  12. Whodunnit

    January 12, 2023 at 6:43 am

    SU-57’s don’t operate within Ukraine as they are too scared to lose one of their most advanced aircraft. This alone tells you that Russia doesn’t maintain air superiority. The only advantage they have is numbers. Bring F16’s into the equation to take away the advantage/attain air superiority and then the mothballed Warthogs can be brought into play to eliminate the remaining Russian armour…..

  13. Jim

    January 12, 2023 at 11:07 am

    This will be interesting… but dangerous.

    After all this advanced weaponry is introduced… and I expect as it becomes undeniably apparent Ukraine is losing and losing big, almost all advanced Nato weapons will be introduced.

    The only thing missing would be Nato troops.

    In a way this will be a preview of a full-on Nato war against Russia.

    Quite possibly, what many warhawks wanted all along.

    Be careful what you wish for… you might not like it.

    Now, I don’t believe it would equal a General European War… although, too damn close for comfort.

    Wonder weapons will not win the war for Ukraine.

    And, it may reveal that U. S. military technology is not much better than Russia… hard to believe for most warhawks… as they have always assumed U. S. technology is superior to Russia’s technology.

    They might find out differently.

    I’d rather not find out… although I suppose to find out the truth is always best.

    As an American I want to believe ours is the best.

  14. Cheburator

    January 12, 2023 at 11:28 am

    Whodunnit
    Russia can lose the Su57 in Ukraine only because of a malfunction. For example, over the past 5 years, the United States has lost ten F35 aircraft due to malfunctions, but journalists do not shout that the F35 is a bad aircraft.
    Ukraine does not have means capable of hitting the Su 57 – neither air nor ground, the maximum that Ukraine currently has is missiles with a range of 40 miles. Russia, on the other hand, uses the Su57 to control the air, the Russians, unlike the Americans, do not hammer nails with a microscope – there is no need to send an expensive stealth fighter to throw bombs at ground targets – there are much cheaper planes for this. And with a range of destruction of air targets of 300 miles, the Su57 can control the sky of Ukraine without even flying into the airspace of Ukraine

  15. Gary Jacobs

    January 12, 2023 at 11:34 am

    Jim,

    LoL, as usually your take is the exact opposite of reality.

    Back here on earth the easiest way to end the war is for Russia to leave Ukraine. Simple as that. then there will be peace and the process of negotiating neighborly relations can begin.

    Do you really expect Ukraine to just allow itself to be subject to mass Russian atrocities? Do you really think they would not fight back? They have a long history of it, but then again you continue to prove just how little you know about Ukrainian and Russian history.

    Ironically, Russia replaced yet another military commander in Ukraine today. Because he failed miserably.

    After convincing Putin to allow the retreat from Kherson, Surovikin then worked to lock in Russian gains across the entire contact line, digging an extensive network of defensive emplacements, multiple layers deep…with cooperative weather, those lines wouldnt be much more valuable than the original Maginot Line.

    After Ukraine’s massive gains in Kharkiv and Kherson, the front lines stabilized, but largely due to the weather. A wet/muddy autumn that came early certainly helped, but the fact that ground has yet to freeze for the winter made the weather a double whammy against more Ukrainian gains for the moment. But it has also hampered Russia’s ability to advance even when throwing an extra 150,000 troops at it… so Putin has no prized captured city to speak of which he reportedly demanded to offset the retreat from Kherson. And for their efforts to make political rather than strategic gains, the Russian military has lost thousands more men in a short period of time with nothing of value to show for it.

    Surovikin had one last gambit up his sleeve: He commanded Russia’s costly effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, betting it would generate a brand new European refugee crisis, driving millions of Ukrainians toward the west. Putin expected these refugees, along with cutting off Europe from Russian gas, would plunge the continent into crisis, raise public discontent, and severely amp up pressure both internationally, and internally in Ukraine, to negotiate a “peace” that would freeze the current lines until Russia could regroup, refit, and restart the its imperialist aggression again on its own terms.

    In reality, none of that happened. It took some serious work, but Europe hasn’t had any trouble maintaining its energy stocks, to the point that gas prices have dropped below the levels when Russia cut off supplies in the summer.

    Thanks to large scale international assistance and local ingenuity, Ukraine has repeatedly been able to quickly repair damage to its energy grid, giving Ukrainians little reason to leave their homeland. The attacks certainly didn’t break Ukraine’s fighting spirit…quite the opposite, in fact.

    But there was one unintended consequence: Russia’s wanton brutality against civilian targets opened the floodgates for new weapons like advanced air defense systems, infantry fighting vehicles, and as of the last few days, main battle tanks.

    In other words, Russia wasted billions of dollars in dwindling missile stocks hitting non military targets, and left Ukraine stronger than before.

    So the general had to be replaced. The next guy will likely be even worse.

    Oh ya, and Bloomberg reported a couple days ago Russian Ural oil was trading at $38 per barrel. It will be even less on the black market. Totally unsustainable for Russia… and a complete backfire of what they intended.

    I could go on for days like this, but for now I digress.

    Have a liberating day

  16. Johnathan Galt

    January 12, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    The premise is nuts. It takes 6 months of training just to get a trained pilot ready to safely operate a new type of fighter, and they still aren’t “mission ready.” That’s not even mentioning how much of a challenge the support trains would face adding a new platform to the mix.

    Their time would be vastly better spent increasing the number of MiG 29s and SU 27s in their inventory. They are capable aircraft, and can be armed with newer missiles and other weapons.

  17. Leidsegracht

    January 12, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    Amateurs talk weapons, professionals talk logistics…and enablement.

    Before we talk about giving Ukraine F16s can we talk first about what Ukraine needs in order establish air dominance? How are they going to suppress Russian anti-aircraft defenses? Do they need more than just F16s to maintain supremacy?

    What roles do they need or want to perform? Close air support? Combat Air Patrol? Sead? What type of support infrastructure do they need for these activities? Forward air controllers, packages geared to radiation detection?

    Figure that stuff out and then let’s have an informed conversation about what we send them…AND YES, I AGREE THESE CONVERSATIONS SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONGOING FOR MONTHS NOW (maybe they have been but nobody told us?)

  18. Jim

    January 12, 2023 at 7:18 pm

    Gary, you try too hard.

    What your imagination can conjure up is not reality.

    I can’t do anything, neither can you… no matter how hard you try.

    I’m comfortable letting things play out…

    You, seemingly are not… but it won’t matter.

    You are personally invested in the outcome… that much is clear… I am interested in holding to account those responsible.

    Let’s see what happens… two weeks will reveal that much more of reality… then we’ll talk.

  19. Yrral

    January 12, 2023 at 8:37 pm

    American are either ignorant or gullible ,no corrupt regime like Zelensky,have ever fairs good in bad time,and will be worst even more in a time of war, Jacobs

  20. dingus

    January 13, 2023 at 8:12 am

    The ruzzian propaganda is rife in these posts. Hopefully Russia on its last legs and the arrival of Leopards, Bradly’s and F16’s will put an end to the war and Putin is removed.

  21. Gary Jacobs

    January 13, 2023 at 11:11 am

    Jim,

    LoL, you are projecting your failures onto others again. I dont have to imagine as I am actually a student of history, and I like to know all the facts. You are a professional cherrypicker.

    As well, as you have previously tried and failed to accurately discuss before, I like to get involved. I actually go to DC to lobby congress for my dearest issue of US-Israel relations.

    And for Ukraine, I am getting more involved with my congressperson, and with support groups for families who have been victims of Russian brutality as mine has.

    You on the other hand try to flex your faux notion of smarts as a keyboard commando with zero ability to do any critical thinking when people who clearly know more than you are trying to explain reality.

    You are trapped in your echo chamber, too filled with false pride to step outside of it and see how the world really is, and adjust accordingly.

    And I will continue to call you out or it.

    Have a liberating day.

  22. Jim

    January 13, 2023 at 1:51 pm

    Gary, your view of history is influenced by your family history, bias and prejudice… you have admitted as much… gone into detail about why you feel the way you do.

    And, you’re entitled to your feelings and policy prescriptions and to express all the above. I defend your right to do so… that’s America.

    We need full debate among Americans of various views.

    But, frankly, millions of Americans don’t share your political opinions… your family history is quite singular, compared to the average American and I suggest it robs you of objectivity.

    In other words, you have a personal grudge against Russia.

    The vast majority of Americans don’t share your personal grudges for the various perceived sins you claim were committed by Russia… a lot of this goes back over a century ago… America can’t be controlled by people who want revenge for events that happened over a century ago.

    Don’t visit your Old World hatreds on the New World… that is why many immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America… to get away from the Old World grudges & hatreds… but you want America to promote & aggravate Old World hatreds.

    I don’t want to revisit Old World hatreds, but you do, that’s a major difference between you and me.

    Should United States foreign policy be a function of personal grudges… or even group grudges? No.

    Ukraine has lost the city of Soledar… there is every indication Bakhmut will fall, too.

    Thus, the present author wants additional weapons, tanks & planes… even deep strikes into Russia against munitions factories.

    If Ukraine was winning as you’ve claimed from the start of the war… why would they need additional weapons?

    No, it’s because Ukraine is losing and its weapons are being destroyed.

    Your fanatical desire to hurt Russia could lead to a wider war that engulfs all of Europe, a General European War… is that what you want?

    If you want that… or are willing to risk that… to fulfill your personal agenda…you’re crazy.

  23. dan mullock

    January 13, 2023 at 2:36 pm

    The F15E is the best solution for Ukraine. It is a two seater aircraft with excellent radar and EWR capabilities. It normally has a pilot and an EWO but could obviously carry two pilots, a trainee and a mentor. So an entire wing of trainees could fly every day with a mentor pilot, in addition to ground training. Two seat F16 trainers exist but are in very high demand and old. The E model F15’s are newer airframes and very capable opponents to Russian aircraft, plus superb ground attack aircraft. Put 100 in Poland and start training Ukrainians. Experienced pilots will be capable in a few months.

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