'The missing component': Key points about F-16s for Ukraine

Ukraine hopes F-16 fighter jets will help its war effort (SIMON WOHLFAHRT)
Ukraine hopes F-16 fighter jets will help its war effort (SIMON WOHLFAHRT)

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kyiv has been pleading with its Western partners to provide the country with modern fighter jets.

The anticipated arrival and deployment of the first batch of F-16 fighter jets in Ukraine will be welcomed by the country and its supporters.

The American-made planes are among the most crucial equipment donated to support Ukraine to date, as the country's forces struggle to resist Russia's invasion.

Here's a rundown of key risks and advantages:

- How many planes does Ukraine need? -

President Volodymyr Zelensky told AFP in May that Ukraine needs 120-130 F-16s or other advanced aircraft to achieve "parity" with Russia.

"Why do I say 120, 130? It is to defend the sky against 300 aircraft. That's the number of aircraft that Russia uses against Ukraine," Zelenksy said.

Ukraine's allies, however, have only committed to providing fewer than 100 F-16s to date, which will likely arrive in batches over several years following lengthy training courses for pilots.

Ukraine relies on a creaky fleet of ageing Soviet-era MiG-29 planes and Sukhoi jets.

They have become increasingly difficult to maintain -- since they require Russian-made components -- and lack the numbers and capabilities to keep Russian aircraft out of Ukraine's skies.

"It is possible to get by with parts from other fairly neutral countries like Azerbaijan, but that has its limits," a Western expert working in the defence sector told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

- Why does Ukraine want F-16s? -

Advanced, Western fighter jets are seen as essential by Kyiv in helping Ukraine's outgunned and outmanned troops beat back Russia's air and ground forces.

"The capabilities of the F-16 enable Ukraine to hold more Russian targets at risk and, in turn, gain more leverage in the war and at the negotiation table," said a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published in June.

"The missing component of air superiority for Ukraine is an offensive air capability, which the F-16s will begin to provide," the report added.

The jets will also help strengthen Ukraine's defence against Russian strikes by intercepting missiles and drones, and targeting Russian warplanes that have hammered Ukrainian positions in recent months.

The CSIS report goes on to suggest that the decisiveness of the jets will depend on myriad factors -- including the type of weapons provided to the planes, the proficiency levels of the pilots and potential use restrictions placed on the craft by Ukraine's Western backers.

Even with their advantages, the fighter jets will be operating in fiercely contested skies.

Ukraine's F-16 pilots will be up against layers of formidable Russian air defences, giving them limited options to attack enemy positions, according to Justin Bronk of the British defence think-tank RUSI.

"Where F-16 could influence the ground war is in providing a layer of defensive counter-air coverage to help keep Russian attack helicopters and fighter-bombers from operating inside Ukrainian-held territory during any Russian breakthrough of Ukrainian lines," Bronk told AFP.

- What are the risks? -

The anticipated delivery of the aircraft comes as Russia's forces have increasingly zeroed in on Ukraine's aviation infrastructure.

The Russian defence ministry said it destroyed at least six Ukrainian planes and a helicopter in air raids on three separate bases this week.

Following the strikes, Ukrainian military correspondents slammed the air force's high command, saying planes at the base had been parked in the open without sufficient protection.

The CSIS report said estimates suggest that the size of Ukraine's current fighter fleet was only 69 aircraft as of March 2023.

Ukrainian authorities refuse to comment on losses sustained by its air force.

"As Ukraine waits for the F-16s, the question of ensuring their safety on the ground remains," said the Ukrainian think tank Defense Express in a recent report.

The F-16s also require carefully maintained runways and highly trained ground crews.

Earlier reports floated the idea of basing the country's new F-16 fleet outside of its borders. Ukraine has not officially commented about where it will base the F-16s.

Since Russia's invasion, Ukraine has received a mishmash of military hardware from its Western backers.

The aid has vastly improved the country's arsenal but also exponentially increased the logistical headaches needed to maintain the numerous systems.

The addition of F-16s will only compound the logistical hurdles needed to keep its military in fighting shape.