Delayed air support

Ukraine is unlikely to get Western jets before next spring

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Delayed air support

Photo: EPA

Letters and promises

The US has officially approved F-16 fighter jet exports from Denmark and the Netherlands to Ukraine, Reuters reported on Friday, citing an official source. The transfer will begin once Ukrainian pilots complete the relevant training course.

The “fighter jet coalition” of 11 countries was aiming to start the F-16 programme this month in Denmark. The country’s acting defence minister said in July that the country was hoping to see the results of the training in the beginning of 2024 already.

However, US officials privately told Reuters that the jets will be of little use to Ukraine in its ongoing counter-offensive and won’t drastically change the rules of the game once they are finally in Ukraine, taking into account Russia’s air-defence systems and the contested skies over Ukraine.

Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Forces Yuri Ihnat noted that Ukraine is unlikely to receive F-16s from the West before spring 2024. “It is already clear that we will not be able to defend Ukraine with F-16 planes in the coming autumn and winter,” he told Ukrainian TV.

Ihnat stressed that Kyiv placed high hopes on these jets because they could become a part of the country’s air-defence system by protecting Ukraine from Russian missiles and planes, while simultaneously carrying out ground strikes. At the same time, the spokesperson lauded the fact that there has finally been some progress when it comes to F-16 training, both for pilots and ground personnel.

Clearances and secrecy

Ukrainian military expert Roman Svitan says that a military base is currently under construction in Romania which will be used in the future to train Ukrainian pilots and engineers. Pilot groups will gradually be retrained to move from Soviet-era equipment to F-16s in one of the 11 “fighter jet coalition” states, possibly Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, or Poland. These states have special models of these fighters with cockpits for two pilots and simulators to run training courses.

Svitan notes that the pace of the exports to Ukraine is directly dependent on the will of its Western allies. The politicians can use Russia’s deal with Iran to sell Su-35 jets, which was meant to take place in 2023, as a possible argument in favour of a quicker transfer.

Lack of pilots

Israeli military expert David Sharp is “very surprised” by the delays in pilot training programmes and jet exports. He believes that both sides should have been already prepared for it.

Sharp is not sure that Ukraine currently has enough experienced military pilots who could be seamlessly withdrawn from the frontlines. “As we know, Storm Shadow missiles are launched from Su-24 bombers. Moreover, the planes participate in air-defence operations and carry out a number of other vital functions. So, you cannot just take a large number of pilots and technical personnel out from the frontlines. I don’t think Ukraine now has even a hundred experienced pilots left.”

“I think that the number of pilots that can be retrained currently stands at around twenty,” Sharp surmises.

Even fewer planes are required for these programmes since each jet can be used by several pilots.

Sharp is certain that hundreds of on-ground personnel will learn to operate F-16s along with these pilots. The coalition and the US should not face many difficulties in setting this up.

Experts believe that the retraining process takes about six months, Sharp explains. Therefore, the most optimistic forecasts tell us that Western planes will be seen in Ukraine in spring 2024 at the earliest.

“It seems that Kyiv can expect a batch of relatively few F-16s that will be far from new. This number of fighters will not be enough to bring about a fundamental shift in the war,” Sharp says, noting that they can still become an important tool for the army.

The expert believes that Americans want to make sure that Ukrainian pilots will use the provided aircraft as efficiently as possible following the training.

Therefore, Washington is not compromising on the pilot preparation programme. It’s better to train more but to step on the battlefield ready and able.

‘A zoo of weapons’

“The biggest problem the Ukrainian army is facing today is a zoo of very different weapon systems created to address completely separate tasks,” says a Russian military expert who agreed to speak with Novaya-Europe on condition of anonymity.

The aircraft should be a part of the wider military system, the expert notes. At the same time, it can be used for aerial combat, to breach the enemy’s air defences, as part of your own air-defence systems, and so on. “Training does not mean just taking off, landing, and special manoeuvres. Planning aerial operations is a very complicated task,” he notes.

The expert stresses that according to statements made by Ukrainian army representatives, Kyiv is hoping to get up to 200 fighters in total. This number of planes will require approximately 10,000 personnel.

There have been no reports that such a large number of staff is being trained now.

“Ukraine’s Western allies mentioned four squadrons, which could mean 48 fighters by Ukrainian standards,” Sharp says. “But it’s clear that this number will be reached gradually. A small group of pilots will be the first to take the training course, followed by another one, and so on. The planes will be provided for very specific pilots. We can surmise that this number of pilots, say 60, can be properly trained in six months. It won’t make any sense to send in the four squadrons earlier than that.”

Sharp believes that the location of the training programme is irrelevant. It can be one of the coalition members or a private training company.

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