For several days now, a rather heated debate has been going on in Europe and the United States on the need to send military jets to Ukraine to support its defenses in the war against Russia. The debate escalated just days after the decision by the United States, Germany and other countries to send a few dozen Western tanks to the Ukrainian army, amid much hesitation.
Ukraine has been asking the West for fighter jets since the start of the so far unsuccessful Russian invasion. But after managing to obtain tank fighters, the Ukrainian government in recent days has renewed pressure to also release fighter jets, which could play a vital role in defending civilians from Russian bombing and in the counteroffensive that will most likely l army is preparing for spring. Western governments, at least for now, are rather skeptical about the possibility of providing fighter jets. But they were previously also on tanks, and before that on long-range missiles, which were then supplied.
Until now, the Ukrainian air force has only had at its disposal old fighters of Soviet origin, such as the Mig-29 and the Su-27. Thanks to them, but above all thanks to a rather efficient ground anti-aircraft defense system, Ukraine managed to prevent Russia from gaining control of the airspace above its territory, which would have created enormous problems for the Ukrainian defense: although the Russian air force has many more fighters and vehicles, thanks to defense systems such as the S-300 and the MANPADs anti-aircraft rockets, which can be carried on the shoulder by a single soldier, Ukraine has managed to keep its skies free .
However, these resources are increasingly scarce. It is not known how many Soviet fighters remained in the Ukrainian air force, but it is reasonable to think that in almost a year of war a large number of them were shot down. Air defense systems are also at risk of shortages: in recent months Russia has begun to adopt a tactic of systematic bombing against civilian targets, such as cities and power plants. To counter these bombings, Ukraine is forced to exhaust its stocks of anti-aircraft missiles, and Western supplies risk not being sufficient to meet the needs.
For this reason, Ukraine has long been asking the West for fighter jets, and in recent days it has taken advantage of the good success achieved with tanks to renew its insistence also on sending jets. In particular, Ukraine would like Western countries to send American-made F-16 fighters, powerful and sophisticated means which are available in large numbers in European military air forces, and which are being phased out because for some years now they have been their gradual replacement with the newer and more performing F-35s.
For now, Western governments have said they are unwilling to supply Ukraine with fighter jets.
US President Joe Biden, when asked if the United States would send F-16s to Ukraine, answered with a rather dry “no”. The UK government has made it known that sending it “is not feasible” for now, and the most negative of all was once again the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said rather impatiently that asking for war jets immediately after receiving the promise of tanks is «not serious» on the part of Ukraine (Scholz had shown the greatest resistance even when the sending of tanks was being discussed).
Reporter: “Will the United States provide F-16s to Ukraine”?
Biden: “Nope.” pic.twitter.com/FtSq2EP099
— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) January 30, 2023
Other countries have proved more open. The French government has announced that “nothing can be excluded, by definition”, while some Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, have been wanting to send fighter jets to Ukraine for months, but are being held back by the lack of support from the other Western allies.
There are several reasons why sending F-16s to Ukraine would be difficult. Some are technical and logistical. F-16s are quite sophisticated aircraft, requiring at least three months of training for pilots and even more for maintenance mechanics. To be used, they also require very long and clean runways, which Ukraine does not currently have: even if they were built, they could become an easy target for Russian bombing.
Other hunting models, like American F-18s or Swedish-made Gripens, would be more appropriate because they need shorter runways and less maintenance. But both of these models are much less available than the F-16s.
Furthermore, fighter jets such as the F-16 would allow Ukraine to attack very deep into Russian territory. For this reason, some European governments fear that Russia sees the sending of fighter jets as excessive provocation. But obviously, as is already happening with long-range missiles, supplies of Western arms are granted to Ukraine with precise rules of engagement, which provide, for example, that the Ukrainian army avoid hitting targets in Russian territory.
Western governments, therefore, have currently ruled out sending fighter jets to Ukraine, but things could change, and even quickly. Doubts and perplexities similar to those now expressed with jets had been expressed in recent months with HIMARS rocket launchers, then with Patriot defense systems, and finally with combat tanks. But they were gradually outdated, and all of these weapon systems were eventually handed over to Ukraine. Also for this reason a European diplomat who asked to remain anonymous he said to Politic that sending fighter jets to Ukraine “is only a question of when” it will happen.
Some diplomats have always said a Politic that the fact that the West is supplying Ukraine with progressively more advanced, powerful and lethal weapons is no accident: it would be a way to gradually increase the military pressure on Russia without provoking too violent a reaction, which could extend the conflict. «You can say that it is a way to acclimatise [Putin]» said one of these diplomats.