The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is an American air superiority fighter that Kyiv has begged for since the start of the full-scale invasion and is expected to finally start receiving this year.
It’s a versatile workhorse of a jet that’s fought in dozens of wars and is in use by more than two dozen nations. The design can be considered venerable, but for Ukraine, with its meager fleet of Soviet MiG-29s, it’s a meaningful upgrade.
It will improve the Ukrainian Air Force’s ability to support its ground troops and intercept Russian bombers before they can strike military or civilian targets. However, experts cautioned that it’s not a silver bullet and requires a lot of preparation to be useful.
Washington’s authorization for allies to give F-16s to Ukraine came through in August 2023. A month earlier, 11 countries formed the “fighter jet coalition” that would deliver the planes and prepare Ukraine and its pilots to use them. It later grew to include 14 countries.
The coalition is led by the U.S., Denmark, and the Netherlands. The others include Norway, the U.K., Greece, Luxembourg, Canada, Poland, France, Romania, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden.
Some of them are supplying the actual hardware — planes, munitions and equipment. Others are making their jets and instructors available for training or preparing pilots on their soil.
The exact number of F-16s to be delivered has yet to be determined. The Netherlands and Denmark will provide at least 37, while Norway and Belgium pledged to give some as well. Delivery dates range from 2024 to 2025, as is the case for the expected completion of the pilot training programs.
Laying the groundwork
There are three separate programs for pilots at different levels. Earlier this month, Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said that six advanced pilots are already flying F-16s in Denmark and should be ready to fight in the spring. The least experienced group is training in the U.K. — they might not be ready until 2025.
Ukrainian ground crews are also learning to service the aircraft.
F-16s are more powerful but also more fragile than the Soviet fighters that Ukraine uses and require specialized logistics and infrastructure.
For example, they require smoother runways. One of the biggest challenges will be resurfacing the runways that Ukraine plans to use without attracting the Russians’ attention.
“Airfields must be protected from air strikes, which means it will be necessary to deploy the air defense systems if it has not already been done,” Viktor Kevliuk, an expert of Ukraine’s Center for Defense Strategies, told the Kyiv Independent.
“The allies should also provide us with air-to-air missiles for air combat because Soviet bombs are not suitable for this plane,” he said. These weapons, plus all the fuel reserves have to be kept somewhere safe and well-guarded. ”This is quite a long process.”
Even though they’re thought of as modern aircraft, F-16s first entered production in the late 1970s. Ukraine is trying to get more modern avionics and weapon systems installed on the planes it will be getting, which would significantly improve their performance.
The jets will require lots of spare parts that the U.S. has pledged to provide.
The first batch of planes may be coming from the Netherlands. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Dec. 22 said that his government started preparing the initial 18 fighter jets, while a spokesperson from the Dutch Defense Ministry told NOS that more jets may be delivered at a later date. There have been no updates since then.
Danish and Dutch officials have said the delivery schedule depends on the readiness of Ukraine’s infrastructure and pilots, among other factors.
Belgium’s defense minister has promised several jets, which would likely arrive in 2025. According to Norwegian broadcaster NRK, Norway plans to send between five and 10 planes, but neither the total number or the delivery schedule has been fixed.
Experts told the Kyiv Independent that Ukraine will likely have at least some F-16s operational in late spring or early summer.
Experts said F-16s will not win the war by themselves, but they will give Ukraine important capabilities it doesn’t currently have.
“With some careful planning… I think there’s a chance that at least in the early stages before the Russians understand what’s happening, they can score some air-to-air kills by having F-16 fighters in just the right place at the right time,” said Peter Layton, Associate Fellow at Royal United Services Institute and former Royal Australian Air Force officer.
The AMRAAM air-to-air missiles that can be fired from the platform have a longer range than the weapons that can be fitted on Ukraine’s MiG-29s. However, this will only remain a tactical advantage before Russians adapt by dragging their aircraft further back from the front line, he said.
Kevliuk noted that Ukrainian and Russian warplanes have not engaged in much air-to-air combat in the past year, as both armies are trying to preserve them.
Russian planes mostly engage ground targets, including civilian targets in cities. F-16s could defend Ukraine’s airspace, reducing the pressure on ground-based air defenses, according to Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.
“With Russia targeting Ukraine's cities, there is a very real danger that Ukraine's air defense launchers could run empty trying to engage every salvo of Russian drones and missiles… If that happens, Russia could gain air superiority over Ukraine by default, and it would be able to bring the full firepower of its air force to bear on the battlefield,” Grieco said.
“To avoid this outcome, Ukraine would need to be more selective in engaging these Russian strikes, or it needs to find additional missiles to intercept these attacks. The F-16 has the potential to be useful in this role.”
Offensively, F-16s could also engage ground targets, helping Ukraine “blast a way” into a Russian-held area by dropping high-explosive bombs “that will create a lot of blasts, noise, and bomb fragments,” according to Layton, although this won’t last long because the F-16 can’t carry a big bomb payload.
As versatile as they are, F-16s have their limitations. Grieco argued that they are unlikely to be the key to breaking through Russia's defensive lines or establishing clear air superiority. To do that, she thinks Ukraine needs to suppress or destroy Russia’s surface-to-air batteries, like the S-400.
“Ukrainian pilots flying F-16s, equipped with anti-radiation weapons, would have to fly well into the S-400's engagement range to bait Russian operators into emitting,” said Grieco.
“The S-400's engagement range is nearly four times the range of an AGM-88 anti-radiation missile, which makes it an inherently dangerous mission, and Ukraine's losses would likely and quickly become unsustainable.”
In the long term, having an F-16 program may accelerate Ukraine’s move towards synchronizing its military with NATO standards and reducing its reliance on outdated aircraft.