Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago, officials in Kyiv have been asking their Western allies to supply the country’s air force with advanced warplanes such as the F-16. But the United States, which manufactures the fighter jet, was long reluctant to provide it, or to allow other countries that have F-16s to re-export them to Ukraine.
American officials worried that the jets could be used to hit targets inside Russia, potentially escalating the conflict, and said that sending Ukraine other weapons was a higher priority. But President Biden reversed course on Friday, telling allies that he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on the F-16 and that the United States would work with other countries to supply Kyiv with the jets.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed what he called “the historic decision of the United States,” and said it would “greatly enhance our army in the sky.”
Here’s what we know about how the move could affect Ukraine’s air force.
How strong is the Ukrainian air force?
Ukraine inherited a sizable but aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets and helicopters, which is a legacy of its history as a part of the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian air force fleet includes fighter jets such as the MiG-29, bombers, and transport and training aircraft, Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the force, said in an interview on Saturday.
Western military analysts estimate that Ukraine’s combined fleet, belonging to air and ground forces, has been depleted by more than a third since the Russian invasion began. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of its 145 fixed-wing planes and 32 of 139 helicopters, according to U.S. military information that was among the classified material leaked on the Discord social media platform in recent months. The document was not dated.
The Ukrainian air force rarely reveals numbers regarding its fleet or other details, including incidents of planes shot down or otherwise destroyed. But officials have acknowledged some losses in the course of the war, as well as difficulties with the repair and replacement of damaged planes.
“The newest plane is from 1991,” Colonel Ihnat said. “And all this should be serviced, repaired and spare parts obtained.”
Obtaining spare parts has become a problem, since Russia is the only producer of many of those parts. Even before the full-scale invasion, the trade of such items had largely ceased after 2014, when Russian-backed forces seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
Overall, the Ukrainian air force is “technologically outmatched and badly outnumbered” compared with the Russian air force, according to a November report by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
A fighter jet, its affiliation unclear, near the frontline town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine last year.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
How do the Ukrainians use their planes?
When Russian forces jammed Ukrainian air defense systems in the opening days of the war, Ukrainian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters provided air defense over most of the country, engaging in air-to-air clashes to thwart Russian bombing raids, according to the institute’s report.
Ukrainian fighter aircraft inflicted some losses on Russian aircraft but “also took serious casualties,” the report said. The Ukrainians took losses in some friendly-fire incidents in the days that followed as they scrambled to introduce new air defense systems.
Nevertheless, despite having a superior fleet, Russia has not been able to achieve air supremacy throughout Ukraine, thanks to the Ukrainians’ strong air defenses. Those defenses have become increasingly robust as Western nations contributed some of their most sophisticated weapons.
The Ukrainian air force continues to fly combat missions, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are often seen flying close to the eastern front line. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have supplied Ukraine with replacement MiG-29s, the first transfers the country has received to boost its depleted fleet. Some are not serviceable and will be used for spare parts, Colonel Ihnat said.
Still, Ukrainian jets and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and limit their actions so as not to stray into Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian jets and attack helicopters have developed a tactic of flying low, unleashing unguided rockets from Ukrainian territory, then immediately banking away to avoid antiaircraft fire. Russian aircraft use similar tactics but have the advantage of superior firepower, which allows them to fire rockets and gliding bombs from a greater distance.
“Russian pilots have been cautious throughout the war,” the RUSI institute report said, “so even a small number of Western fighters could have a major deterrent effect.”
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets during exercises in the Philippines this month.Credit…Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Why do the Ukrainians want the F-16?
The Ukrainians do not want to use the jets only as a deterrent.
A group of Ukrainian Parliament members speaking at the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month said they wanted the F-16 because its radar can locate targets on the ground hundreds of miles away, allowing pilots to stay safely over Ukrainian-held territory while launching weapons into Russian-occupied areas.
Colonel Ihnat said that in addition to its being used for air defense — that is, to shoot down incoming Russian missiles and drones — the plane could provide cover for Ukrainian troops trying to advance in any counteroffensive. He noted that it could also be used to ward off Russian planes that have started launching guided bombs from at least 30 miles from the Ukrainian front line; to defend the sea route that lets Ukrainian grain leave the country; and to gain air supremacy over the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
None of those objectives can be achieved with Ukraine’s current fleet of Soviet-designed aircraft, he said.
“The fleet is super old,” Colonel Ihnat said. “We have four to five times fewer aircraft than the Russians, and the range of the planes is four to five times less than those of the Russians.”
A United States Air Force F-16 refueling during an exercise in Nevada in 2014.Credit…John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal, via Associated Press
How would the F-16 increase Ukraine’s capabilities?
The small, single-engine and highly maneuverable fighter-bomber has long been a mainstay of the United States Air Force, which used it extensively in combat during the 1991 gulf war, in the Balkans, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to an Air Force description of the warplane, the F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is able to strike targets on the ground more than 500 miles away while defending itself with air-to-air missiles.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts have said that Ukraine’s air force needs such modern Western fighters and missiles to sustainably counter Russian planes, which have a greater depth of firepower, and to hold their ground against the Russian juggernaut, which has used bombers relentlessly to destroy large cities such as Mariupol and Bakhmut to capture them.
Although Mr. Biden does not believe that fighter jets will play an important role on the Ukrainian side of the conflict for a while, providing them is part of the thinking about how to defend Ukraine even after the current phase of the war is over.
Ukrainian officials have long said that Ukraine needs an army equipped and trained to NATO standards with modern aircraft to be able to guard its border with Russia over the long term. The decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine suggests that the Biden administration and its allies now believe that, too, and that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-like armistice — Ukraine will need a long-term capability to deter an angry, sanctioned Russia.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Odesa, Ukraine, John Ismay from Washington, and David Sanger from Hiroshima, Japan.