Denmark and the Netherlands have agreed to donate F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, with first deliveries due around New Year.
Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said on August 20, 2023, that Denmark would deliver 19 jets in total; the first six will “hopefully” be shipped to Ukraine around New Year, followed by eight in 2024 and five the following year.
The Netherlands has 42 F-16s available in all but has yet to decide whether all of them will be donated.
Following Denmark’s decision, Russia’s ambassador to the country, Vladimir Barbin, warned of an escalation in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
“The fact that Denmark has now decided to donate 19 F-16 aircraft to Ukraine leads to an escalation of the conflict,” Russian ambassador Vladimir Barbin said in a statement cited by the Ritzau news agency.
As we will see in the subsequent narrative, the Russian ambassador was likely speaking in right earnest.
Escalation Or Drama?
The US made an in-principle decision to allow the transfer of F-16 fighters to Ukraine on May 19, 2023, when President Joe Biden informed G-7 leaders that the US would support an initiative by the allies to train Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO fighters, including F-16s.
On August 19, Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the F-16 training for Ukrainian pilots and support staff had begun. The training program will last at least six months. Reznikov was clearly referring to preparatory training, including English language training, not F-16-specific flying or maintenance training.
The fact that preparatory training has just started but Denmark’s PM is alluding to the transfer of six F-16 fighters to Ukraine in December, just four months from now, suggests that there may be some theatrics at play.
Indeed, the official statement announcing the transfer stated:
We agree to transfer F-16 aircraft to Ukraine and the Ukrainian Air Force in close cooperation with the US and other partners when the conditions for such a transfer are met. Conditions include but are not limited to, successfully selected, tested, and trained Ukrainian F-16 personnel as well as necessary authorizations, infrastructure, and logistics.
As the adage goes, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip! It’s unlikely that “the conditions for such a transfer” will be me for another year.
The theatrics suggest NATO is not aiming for an escalation straightaway but rather opting for a carrot-and-stick approach to force Russia to come to the negotiating table. Not because Russia is losing the war but because the West has finally realized that Ukraine could lose the war.
Let me explain:
A realistic timeline for the operational deployment of the F-16 fighters in Ukraine could easily stretch to mid-2024, if not later. By then, to quote William Shakespeare in Macbeth, the hurly-burly may well be done, and the battle may well be lost and won.
Over the past two weeks, Western mainstream media, in a dramatic U-turn, has started reporting that Ukraine may not be able to achieve the goals that it set for its counter-offensive, suggesting that US/NATO leadership is looking for an off-ramp.
Simultaneously, Russia, which earlier was always welcoming of peace negotiations, appears to have hardened its stand on the issue.
Deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, Dimitry Medvedev, in a recent statement, said, “But we must not stop until the current, inherently terrorist Ukrainian state is completely dismantled. It must be destroyed to the ground. Or rather, so that even the ashes from it did not remain. So that this abomination could never, under any circumstances, be reborn.”
Even the always affable Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, responding to recent ‘peace proposals’ from the West, said, “We regard the Westerners’ hypocritical calls for talks as a tactical ploy to buy time once again giving the exhausted Ukrainian troops a respite and the opportunity to regroup, and to send in more weapons and ammunition.”
There are two good reasons why the F-16 transfer announcements come through as drama.
Militarily, the F-16s won’t make much of a difference.
F-16 operations will require a lot of NATO specialists to be based in Ukraine.
Limited Operational Impact
As compared to the fighters already in AFU inventory (MiG-29, Su-27), the F-16s to be transferred to Ukraine feature more advanced radar and electro-optical sensors, they carry longer-range air-to-air missiles and long-range precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, including glide bombs and cruise missiles.
Most importantly, the F-16s would be data linked with AFU’s air defense network comprising numerous ground-based radar and missile systems, ground observation posts, drones, and possibly other airborne assets such as AWACS.
Despite the superiority of the F-16, the operational impact of their induction will be limited because Russian AD systems will be as adept at shooting down cruise missiles and glide bombs launched by F-16s as they are with those launched by existing AFU fighters.
AFU F-16s will be able to carry the long-range AIM-120 missile, but Russian fighters, like the Su-35 and Su-30SM, already carry an even longer-range air-to-air missile – the RVV-BD.
Will Mandate Deployment Of NATO Military Personnel In Ukraine
Usually, the transfer of fighters from one country to another is a process that takes 2 to 3 years to complete, including the training of pilots.
Transfer of fighters and their operational deployment within a year is possible only if specialists from the manufacturing company, Lockheed Martin in the case of F-16, and military maintenance specialists from the country transferring the fighters, Denmark and Netherlands in this case, are deployed on the operating airbase.
To fly and maintain the F-16, the AFU would need ready access to the servicing records of each of the transferred F-16 fighters. It would take the AFU years to set up its own NATO-compatible logistics and maintenance information systems, storage facilities for spares, and servicing bays for daily and periodic servicing.
Initially, AFU would have to depend on NATO personnel deployed at the F-16 base for provisioning and maintenance to keep the F-16s flying. You can get mercenaries to fly your F-16s, though I doubt NATO would allow that, but you cannot get mercenaries to service your F-16s.
The problem is the deployment of NATO personnel in uniform on an operational base in Ukraine would be tantamount to participation in the conflict.
In this case, possible Russian missile attacks on residential quarters of the NATO personnel would be the least of the worries. With such a deployment, the US and NATO would be scaling the escalation ladder several rungs in one step.
Limited military gains with a high risk of conflict escalation almost rule out the quick operational deployment of F-16s in Ukraine.
The theatrics surrounding the transfer of F-16 fighter jets make sense only if the drama is aimed at convincing Russia to come to the negotiating table.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
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