Opinions

F-16s to Ukraine an Exercise in Symbolism Over Substance

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“When [we] have F-16, we will win this war,” said Yurii Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command.

“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews—just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what y’all say, that’s called World War III,” said Joe Biden on March 11, 2022.

After months of saying no, the Biden administration has agreed to allow the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine. This appears to be both another major escalation and another crossing of the so-called red line that the United States has blithely stepped over so many times in its proxy war against Russia.

And this announcement has, of course, generated a number of questions regarding what kind of impact the F-16s can have on the war.

But as noted by Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, “F-16s will not be relevant to the upcoming counter offensive.”

Ryder’s statement is a great example of making the obvious obvious, as training up the pilots and thousands of maintainers necessary to support militarily relevant numbers of F-16s will take tens of billions of dollars and more than two years. Still, Biden’s stated openness to allowing the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine does raise some questions worth addressing.

The most important question that comes to mind is whether this commitment to get F-16s to Ukraine is more symbolism than substance.

As Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov correctly notes, “There is no infrastructure for the operation of the F-16 in Ukraine and the needed number of pilots and maintenance personnel is not there either.”

That this is the case is confirmed by top Pentagon official Colin Kahl, who gives what should be considered a best-case scenario when he says, “Used F-16s could be provided for as little as $2 billion, and fielded in as little as 18–24 months,” according to Air & Space Forces magazine.

Both men are pointing out that one can’t simply throw some F-16s over the wall to Ukraine and expect them to start providing the air power Ukraine so sorely needs. Even 50 F-16s will require many hundreds of highly trained maintainers that require years of training. Then you have to set up the logistics necessary to support the F-16s, including spare parts, fuel, weapons, etc. Also, operating any substantially sized F-16 fleet effectively will require a large cadre of mission planners and real-time operational commanders. And let’s not forget Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) support, without which F-16 effectiveness as a “Western Fighter” is greatly diminished.

Another hurdle standing in the way of effectively using F-16s in Ukraine is that while its airfields and runways can support legacy Soviet fighters that have relatively heavy-duty landing gear, they’re too rough for F-16 landing gear and would have to be upgraded.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s well to understand that Russia’s military has missiles and drones that it can use to strike throughout all of Ukraine at will. Consequently, establishing the kind of infrastructure to support a militarily relevant number of F-16s and keeping those F-16s from being destroyed on the ground, along with their support facilities and runways, will be well-nigh impossible.

So, as has been explained in many other stories and articles, there doesn’t appear to be any reasonable way to get F-16s in action to help Ukraine in the near future, and certainly not in time for any spring or summer offensive. But even if  F-16s could be deployed, properly supported, and protected tomorrow, they would be going up against one the toughest, if not toughest, integrated air defense networks in the world. And Russia has an Air Force of over 3,000 aircraft, including some 900 fighters and 15 to 20 AWACS. And while modern F-16s with experienced, well-trained pilots supported by AWACS are more than a match for all but a few of Russia’s most elite fighters, numbers matter. The 48 fighters that the Ukraine Defense Ministry says it needs to win the war would be no more than a bump in the road for Russia.

Epoch Times Photo
F-16 fighter jets take part in the NATO Air Shielding exercise near the air base in Lask, Poland, on Oct. 12, 2022. (Radoslaw Jozwiak/AFP via Getty Images)

The only real scenario in which F-16s could truly make a difference would require many hundreds of F-16s with U.S.-level pilots and the kind of logistics and operational support U.S. pilots receive when flying missions, including AWACS. This couldn’t be achieved without contracting thousands of foreign maintainers, and it’s likely even foreign/non-Ukrainian “volunteer” pilots would be required. And because air facilities and F-16s based in Ukraine would have zero chance of surviving, they would have to be based in adjoining NATO countries in the foolish hope they would be safe there.

Needless to say, such an escalation by Biden and other NATO leaders would be beyond reckless, and one would like to think unthinkable. But if the Biden administration went forward with such a course of action, Russia would view it as a direct attack by NATO, and what was a proxy war being waged against Russia by the United States and its NATO allies would suddenly become an all-out war—as Russia, which has missiles capable to taking out any and all airbases in Europe involved with such craziness, would almost certainly do that.

As mentioned above, the only reason such a crazy scenario is being discussed is that it’s the only possible scenario in which F-16s would have any chance of making a timely, substantive contribution to Ukraine’s defense. So, unless the Biden administration and other NATO allies really do want to bring about World War III, talk of supplying F-16s is more about signaling to themselves and the world that the U.S.-led NATO is still rooting for Ukraine to continue sending its men into places like Bakhmut to fight an opponent that has a ten to one advantage in artillery, a large advantage in tanks, is on the verge of gaining air dominance, and by some reports from independent analysts such as retired U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, could have up to a five to one advantage in battle-ready manpower.

This brings us back to the question of symbolism versus substance. And the answer is clear, barring insanely reckless actions designed to bring about World War III, talk of providing F-16s and training to Ukrainians to pilot and maintain them is wholly symbolic and will be proven to be academic, as in two years, or even 18 months, it’s near certain that the war will have been over for some time and some kind of peace agreement will be in place. And it’s highly likely its terms won’t include bunches of Western-supported F-16s being based in Ukraine.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.



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