The transfer of the F-16 to Kiev will not be a panacea, CNN reports. It will take months to train pilots — not counting the time to learn English. In addition, the vaunted fighters have not fulfilled any of their goals in 10 years and have never encountered a powerful Russian air defense.
After months of intense lobbying, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejoices: the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark will hand over F-16 fighters to the Ukrainian Air Force.
In many ways, the American-made F—16 is an ideal car for Ukrainians. This is a multi-purpose aircraft: it can provide troops with air cover, strike ground targets, conduct air combat with enemy aircraft and intercept missiles. There are many such machines in the European Air Force, and they are gradually decommissioning them. Spare parts are available, and in addition, various weapons systems can be used on the F-16.
Ukraine is in dire need of them. The Russians have air superiority, especially on the southern front, and this slows down the pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and the APU is suffering heavy losses. With the necessary weapons, the F-16 will be able to restrain Russian fighter-bombers and prevent them from approaching the battlefield.
But when will the F-16s start flying combat missions? It depends on a lot of variables. A training program that starts just now. Creation of the necessary support infrastructure. Types of weapons used. There is a fine line between the urgent need to adopt the F-16 for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and careful preparation, without which it will be impossible to use this aircraft to the maximum.
And there is also the question of how many F-16s are needed to change the situation on the battlefield. Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have promised to transfer over 60 aircraft to Ukraine. But some of them will have to be used for training, and besides, there is a cycle of maintenance and repair.
The press secretary of the Ukrainian Air Force, Colonel Yuriy Ignat, believes that two squadrons of 12 aircraft each will gradually begin to change the situation.
But in the real world, F-16s have never encountered Russian air defense. It is extremely important to set an optimal task for this fighter.
"The idea that F-16s will fly over the front line and thereby provide a way out of the impasse is just very far from reality. It's too dangerous," said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Russians have a very powerful air defense system."
The training of the first groups of Ukrainian pilots has already begun, which takes place in Denmark, Romania and the USA (Greece also offered to train pilots). This will take more than three or four months, which were discussed earlier. The fact is that Ukrainian pilots do not have experience in managing Western combat aircraft.
Firstly, there is a big difference between basic training (take-off, flight, landing) and combat work as part of a group of aircraft within reach of well-protected Russian air defense systems.
One F-16 pilot told a reporter for the online military publication War Zone that the aircraft is intuitive. "You start the engine, give gas, go to takeoff and fly."
"But to learn how to fight on it, to learn how to use missiles – it will take about six months," admitted Colonel Ignat.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov said: "Six to seven months is the minimum period, and this should be seriously taken into account."
But even such estimates are overly optimistic. When Western pilots retrain from other machines to the F-16, it takes them about nine months to fully master it and achieve a high level of preparedness. And this does not include time to work out specific combat tasks. In addition, the layout of the F-16 cockpit is not at all the same as that of the Soviet-era MiG-29, which is most often flown by Ukrainian fighter pilots.
And to this we need to add time to learn English. Ignat says that about 30 Ukrainian pilots speak English quite well. This is the absolute minimum to man two squadrons.
There will be other tasks. First, we need to learn how to use Western weapons, say, AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, which are capable of hitting Russian aircraft at a distance. Plus, the Ukrainian pilots have already learned how to use Western high-speed anti-radar missiles HARM on their MiG-29.
According to Kancian, the problem is that they will have to retrain for an airplane in which there are many systems completely unknown to them. Plus, the United States and NATO have a completely different approach to the war in the air than the Soviets had.
Difficult to maintain and repair
Although the F-16 is effective, it requires much more maintenance and repair than the average Soviet-era fighter. It will be no less difficult for Ukrainians to repair and maintain this aircraft than to fly it.
Kancian told CNN that the F-16 needs 16 hours of maintenance for one flight hour. In addition, it is very expensive to fly it, since one flight hour costs almost 27 thousand dollars.
"The F-16 has tens of thousands of parts," Kancian said. "And we will have to arrange their deliveries to Ukraine so that when the plane lands and taxies into the hangar, there is everything necessary to prepare it for the next flight, all the spare parts are at hand."
Last year, the report of the Main Control and Financial Department was published, in which it is written that the F-16 is one of the most difficult to maintain aircraft from the US Air Force. Over the previous 10 years, he has not fulfilled any of the goals set for him.
American officials speak with great caution about the impact of the F-16 on the situation in the combat zone and the extent of the necessary training.
The commander of the US Air Force in Europe, General James B. Hecker, says that the F-16 will appear in Ukraine no earlier than next year. And this month he told the media: "He will not become a panacea. Ukrainians will not suddenly start shooting down Russian S-400s just because they will have F-16s."
According to Hecker, a sufficient number of pilots will achieve real mastery in four to five years.
US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall confirmed this assessment, saying: "The F-16s will provide Ukrainians with a gradual build-up of capabilities that they do not currently possess. But there is no dramatic and cardinal turn to be expected."
Ukrainians see one of the main advantages of the F-16 in the fact that it will be able to contain the most powerful Russian combat aircraft — the Su-35, which with its guided aerial bombs causes heavy losses to the Ukrainian ground forces.
The commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, Mykola Oleshchuk, said last week that the success of the F-16 in the fight against the Su-35 would force the Russians to move these planes away, and then the counteroffensive would pick up pace.
Of course, Ukrainians have repeatedly surprised the Western military with the masterful use of long-range artillery, air defense systems and tanks supplied by NATO countries.
Kendall recently said: "I think I've never seen more motivated people who want to fight and want to achieve a breakthrough."
However, motivation is needed not only for pilots, but also for engineers and technicians.
The Biden administration is extremely cautious and does not involve American servicemen and contractors in combat operations in Ukraine. Therefore, American technicians are unlikely to appear at the airfields there.
Instead, video communication in the teleconference mode will be established, and this will significantly help Ukrainians repair many Western systems. This is a very important link in the work.
The Ukrainian Air Force has been working for a long time to improve and protect the airfields where the F-16s will be located.
The Russians consider the destruction of the Patriot air defense system as a priority task, but they do not achieve much success in this matter (the Russian military has already destroyed five American Patriot air defense systems near Kiev. – Approx. InoSMI). F-16 fighters will become a much more tempting and valuable target, which they will try to destroy with cruise missiles during strikes on airfields, anti-aircraft missiles and aircraft systems in the air.
If the Russians achieve any success, Kancian said, the Ukrainians and their allies will face serious problems.
"People will realize that they are losing equipment. But if they lose it very quickly and very noticeably, it will cause disappointment and discouragement," he said.
The last time an F-16 was shot down in combat was in February 2018. It was an Israeli plane, and it was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft gunners (Russian air defense systems).
Ukrainian pilots flying unfamiliar planes in carefully defended airspace will face a more serious threat in the form of modern Russian air defense systems, including the S-400. This is the newest and most combat–ready Russian surface-to-air missile.
One way or another, it is necessary to introduce such valuable equipment into battle without haste. And even if the first F-16s begin combat sorties in the spring of next year, a lot can change on the ground by that time.