The Russian Air Force has not yet gained the upper hand – but that could change soon. The Ukrainian demand for fighter jets is becoming louder and louder.

Ukraine has been demanding western fourth-generation fighter jets more or less since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022. But since January 25, 2023, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally agreed to export Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine (spurred by a matching offer of M1 Abrams main battle tanks from America), the demand has become more insistent .

Ukraine wants American F-16 or F-15 fighter jets, both of which are in large numbers as they are being phased out by many NATO air forces, which are increasingly being supplied with fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters. On January 30, 2023, President Joe Biden declared that America would not deliver F-16s. Will Ukraine still get them in the end?

The matter has now become urgent. Ukraine is preparing for a spring offensive to retake territory, perhaps before the next wave of Russian mobilizations. The Russian Air Force has so far failed to gain air supremacy over Ukraine, although it is superior in both numbers and capabilities to the Ukrainian Air Force, which has mostly Soviet-era Mig-29 and Su-27 fighter jets at its disposal is.

This is thanks to a well-functioning ground-based air defense system, relying primarily on S-300 surface-to-air missiles dating back to the 1970s and a large number of man-portable rocket launchers (Manpads) supplied by NATO member states. These have enabled the Ukrainian Air Force to control the airspace and provide much-needed support to the ground forces. However, that could change soon.

Ukraine does not disclose the level of its loss of planes and pilots, but it is undoubtedly feeling the effects of the year-long war of attrition. Worse still, rocket fire and drone strikes by the Russians on critical infrastructure and residential areas over the winter have left Ukraine’s anti-aircraft missile stockpiles at woefully low levels.

A particular problem is Russia’s use of Iran’s Shahed-136 drone, which can deliver precision strikes on weakly defended targets such as power plants. Most of the ammo needed to repel the attacks is many times more expensive than the Shahed itself (which costs around $20,000). While the Ukrainians desperately need more manpads, they fear that without the F-16 or other Western fighter jets they will no longer be able to prevent Russian air superiority.

But why hasn’t the West delivered them yet? One reason is that some leaders, including Biden, fear that equipping Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets would enable them to attack targets deep within Russian territory, in what the Kremlin sees as an escalation and could trigger renewed threats of nuclear retaliation.

Another reason often cited is that the F-16 is a complex aircraft. The pilots need at least three months of training and the mechanics even more. Ukraine isn’t getting enough of it, although the Ukrainian Air Force says it is arming military airports across the country in anticipation of Western fighter jets. However, these airfields quickly become targets for the Russians.

The first reason was cited almost every time Ukraine asked the West for new or improved equipment, especially when it came to offensive rather than defensive weapons. The fact is, like a main battle tank, the F-16 serves both offense and defense, depending on how it’s deployed.

Justin Bronk, an air forces expert at the RUSI think tank, points out that if deployed to Russia, the F-16 would be at the mercy of Russian surface-to-air missiles, including the deadly S-400. There are probably more appropriate methods of hitting distant targets in Russia.

The second reason for the non-deployment of the aircraft is more serious, but the problem is not insurmountable. Pilot and ground crew training could begin immediately before the planes are deployed. Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think tank, says runways are a problem, but pilots could use scattered airfields.

Due to the use of numerous airfields, these are more difficult for the Russians to find. However, the runways would be shorter and more impassable, putting the aircraft and pilot at greater risk. But if the Ukrainians say they want the F-16, recent history suggests they have a pretty good idea of ​​how they would use it.

Many supporters of Ukraine in the West have come to believe that it is not enough for Ukraine to avoid defeat, but for Russia to be defeated. The Netherlands have already signaled their willingness to send F-16s. Ukraine says Poland is considering the same. The Pentagon is said to be preparing to approve the exports.

As usual, Germany’s Olaf Scholz leads the army of procrastinators. If the West believes that without supplying better fighter jets, Russia will eventually gain air supremacy, it should supply it: sooner rather than later.

This text first appeared in The Economist and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.

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