F-16 Deliveries to Ukraine Europe Hesitates on Warplanes for Kyiv
The new symbol of Ukrainian strength is gathering dust in a museum in Brussels. In the large aircraft hangar of the Royal Military Museum, parked between a British Spitfire and a German Junckers Ju-52 from World War II, is the first single-seat F-16 fighter jet, in service with the Belgian air force starting in 1979, retired nearly 30 years ago, covered in an impressive layer of dust.
In the debate about additional support for Ukraine with Western equipment, the aged fighter jet model is experiencing a renaissance. The government in Kyiv has been pressing Western allies for months to supply F-16s for air defense, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has declared a fighter jet coalition to do so. In a surprise development at the recent G-7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his support, and other countries, including Britain and France, followed suit. But just how the new coalition intends to help has so far remained relatively vague.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2023 (May 27th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
The Belgian government recently made it clear that supplying F-16s to Ukraine was out of the question for the country. Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedoner recently told his country's parliament that Belgian would help train Ukrainian pilots to fly them. However, he said, the Belgian Air Force still needed the last 53 of the 160 F-16s it once owned. Its successor, the F-35, isn’t scheduled to go into service until 2025.
Training, yes, but no deliveries – the Belgian government isn’t alone with this position. Several NATO countries have declared their willingness to train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16, and German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is also looking into how his country could provide logistic help.
An F-16 at the Royal Military Museum in BrusselsFoto: Markus Becker / DER SPIEGEL
The Europeans Are Waiting for Washington To Move
So, far, though, no European countries have come forward to offer deliveries of the jet. In addition to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Romania have stocks of F-16s. But until the U.S. takes the first step, no European country is likely to make any moves – a fact that once again became clear at this week’s meeting of European Union defense ministers in Brussels, according to diplomats familiar with that meeting.
The German government has kept its cards close to its chest on the issue. After Chancellor Olaf Scholz was taken by surprise by the U.S. announcement in Hiroshima, he made a clear effort to appear as nonchalant as possible. Because Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, doesn’t have any F-16 fighter jets, such is the chancellor’s position, Berlin will continue to focus on supplying artillery and air defense systems for the time being. It was only in mid-May, on the occasion of Zelenskyy’s visit to Berlin, that he announced a 2.7-billion-euro arms package for Ukraine. Consequently, he said, there was no pressure to make further commitments or even to support the delivery of fighter jets.
The issue will, however, be back on the table at the NATO summit in Lithuania in July, if not before. It’s hard to imagine that Germany will not want to have a position on the issue by that point. Behind the scenes, discussions are underway on what Berlin could do to support the F-16 project. It is clear that Berlin would not raise any objections if the U.S. wanted to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 jets at U.S. bases in Germany - even if military officials say that the U.S. would likely conduct flight training in its own country, citing Germany's limited utility for such training due to the rather small size of its airspace.
Inspector General Ingo Gehartz, the head of Germany’s air force, mused publicly this week that the Bundeswehr could provide infrastructure for exercises as well as support for pilot training. However, he said, a "political decision" would be needed for that. If Berlin wanted to go further, it could conceivably provide arms for those fighter jets provided by other nations. This could include Bundeswehr deliveries of both Sidewinder missiles for air combat and precision bombs for attacks on ground targets. Manufactured for Germany’s Tornado or Eurofighter aircraft, the weapons are currently stored in depots and would have to be adapted technically to fit the F-16. But military officials believe it would be possible to do so. First, though, it is necessary to know who is supplying aircraft at all – and how many.
Doubts About Military Utility of Fighter Jets
For now, though, some European Union member states have their doubts as to whether F-16 deliveries would make any sense in the first place. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says there should be "no taboo" on the provision of F-16s to Ukraine. And he would certainly be in a position to supply a handful: The Netherlands recently halted the sale of 18 of the country’s 42 F-16s.
Inspector General Ingo Gehartz (left) of the German air force and Defense Minister Boris PistoriusFoto: Jens Büttner / dpa
Critics of supplying F-16 jets say that the Ukrainians don’t need them in the short or medium term. They also say that the warplanes are useless for building up a modern Ukrainian air force because they are simply too old. And there are currently no Russian aircraft in Ukrainian airspace against which the F-16 could compete.
The F-16 would also be out of the question for supporting a Ukrainian summer offensive because pilot training would take at least three to five months, according to the ministerial meeting in Brussels. In addition, attendees at the meeting were told, artillery to support ground forces is more important than a handful of fighter jets. Talk of the F-16s, critics argue, is merely symbolic.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf ScholzFoto:
Lewis Joly / dpa
That is, in fact, the impression one gets when looking at the F-16 debate in France. French President Emmanuel Macron clearly isn't interesting in being accused of hesitancy when it comes to military support for Ukraine. "There are no taboos," Macron recently said when asked about French fighter jets for Ukraine in an interview with the television station TF1. But Macron also said that the debate was only a "theoretical" one at this point.
Sources close to Macron say that the French president is sympathetic to Zelenskyy’s demand for fighter jets. But he feels the debate is premature. Ukrainian pilots would first need to be trained on Western fighter jets. The French president’s office also cites linguistic and cultural hurdles that must first be overcome. "Ukrainian pilots were trained on systems that are not French and do not conform to French logic. Few of the pilots speak French, and few of them even speak English."
The Ukrainians will first be familiarized with the French fighter jets. They can start training "immediately," Macron said. In fact, members of the Ukrainian Air Force have been training for months in Lorraine and southwestern France, where they are learning things like what to do if their plane is shot down.
The government in Paris is keeping silent about the details of the new training offensive. Such as whether the country would like to participate in fast-track training of Ukrainian pilots on its Dassault Mirage 2000C jets from the 1980s in order to then send the now decommissioned jets into combat against Russia. Or whether training on the Mirages will be adapted to the American F-16.
According to French military experts, the Mirages only have one advantage: their availability. Only recently, the army mothballed 13 of them. They are considered to be outdated, and they have weak radar systems. They also can’t be equipped with new ammunition because the explosive devices that are needed are no longer manufactured. Meanwhile, the French military isn't likely to acquiesce to a delivery of more modern Rafale fighter jets, because it doesn’t have enough of them to cover its own needs.
And so the Europeans’ gaze turns to the U.S., where Joe Biden's position on the fighter jets follows a well-rehearsed pattern. First, he resisted the delivery of heavy artillery, then of rocket launchers and then the export of Abrams tanks. In the end, though, the president has always agreed. This time, however, it’s not only a question of whether the U.S. should send its own weapons to Ukraine. The U.S. must also approve exports if any other countries want to deliver F-16 aircraft to Kyiv.
U.S. President Joe BidenFoto: Susan Walsh / AP
There have been numerous debates in the White House in recent months about whether the fighter jets could provide the Ukrainians with a decisive advantage on the battlefield. The Ukrainian president pressed Washington during his December visit, and since then, dozens of members of the Ukrainian parliament have been to the U.S. capital to explain how urgently the fighter jets are needed.
But Biden has been hesitant for several reasons: He fears the aircraft could further escalate the conflict, which he does not want to spiral into "World War III," as Biden has repeatedly emphasized. The U.S. president is also under pressure not to let military aid get out of hand. He is facing a tough re-election battle in 2024, and as things stand now, his opponent is expected to be either Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Trump, in particular, has criticized arms deliveries to Ukraine as a multi-billion-dollar waste of taxpayer money.
The U.S. has provided $43 billion worth of military aid to Ukraine over the past 13 months. The F-16 jets could further drive up costs. And that’s likely one reason that Biden has so far only approved the training of Ukrainian pilots. He would obviously prefer for his European NATO partners to empty their stocks of F-16 jets first.
Ukraine, for its part, is continuing to pressure on Europe. The country requires modern fighter jets "to strengthen our air and missile defenses, save lives and protect civilians," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently wrote in the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy. A quarter of all drones and missiles used by Russia against Ukraine still get through, he wrote.
An apartment building destroyed by a missile strike in Dnipro, UkraineFoto: Dnipropetrovsk Regional Military Administration Handout / EPA
For a successful counteroffensive, air superiority is needed, the Ukrainians argue, and grain supplies across the Black Sea must also be secured. Ultimately, Kuleba argues, F-16s in the hands of Ukrainian pilots would help deter Russia from further attacks on neighboring countries. In any case, he argues, it is also a matter of showing Russia that support for Ukraine is not waning when it comes to keeping the country armed. However, Kuleba left open how many F-16s Ukraine would need to send such a message. In Brussels and Berlin, politicians are thus puzzling over how many aircraft the Ukrainians would like to have.
As the fighter jet coalition slowly grows, people close to the Ukrainian president are already moving the debate to their next need: Russia is also pressing the war at sea. And Ukraine urgently needs support to massively upgrade its naval forces. After the fighter jets, the next issue on the table could very well be warships.