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‘It is all lining up’: Plan for Ukraine to finally start using F-16 jets this summer

At a military base in the rural south of the Netherlands, Gen Arnoud Stallmann, a Dutch air force commander, said he expected that at some point this summer, F-16 fighter jets would finally take to the skies over Ukraine.

“Around this summertime, it is all lining up,” he said, speaking in front of two disused F-16s inside a hangar at the base, where a recent programme to train Ukrainian air force instructors in maintenance for the jets had just come to a close.

Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have pledged to provide Ukraine with about 80 US made F-16 fighter jets between them, hardware that the Ukrainian air force has been asking for for more than a year. But the programme to get the planes in the air has been hit by delays in delivery and training.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, and defence minister, Ludivine Dedonder, and F-16 instructors and technicians. Photograph: Didier Lebrun/Photonews/Getty Images

The general said the training regimen for pilots and ground staff to operate the aircraft was not simple. “It’s not just the pilots who need training; technicians and maintainers also require thorough instruction. We’re providing comprehensive support training to ensure they can effectively maintain the aircraft. So everything has to come together,” he said.

The Netherlands’ defence minister, Kajsa Ollongren, also said the first deliveries of aircraft to Ukraine should take place this summer, and pushed back against criticism over the delays amid reports that Kyiv has been frustrated with the pace of pilot training.

“I completely understand the Ukrainian position, they want to do this as fast as possible … We are doing the project as fast as we can, we are really stretching our capacity,” Ollongren said.

“The F-16s are really much more complicated than the systems the Ukrainian air force were using so far … You cannot just hop over several steps, you have to take every step of the process, but also we want to deliver them as quickly as possible,” she added.

Ukraine has been waiting for months to start using the fighter jets, and hopes their introduction will change the dynamics of the war, forcing Russia to adopt more conservative tactics in its attacks on areas closer to the border.

A destroyed hypermarket in Kharkiv after a Russian aerial attack. Ukrainian sources say F-16s would protect the city from Russia’s KABs, which launch bombs from planes inside Russian airspace. Photograph: Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

Anatolii Khrapchynskyi, an aviation expert and former Ukrainian military pilot, said: “The Russians will be forced to change their tactics. We will be able to target their planes and missiles more effectively, and it will be really difficult for them to keep using KAB guided air bombs, which they need to launch from 50 to 70km away.”

Russia has been using KABs extensively against the city of Kharkiv in recent weeks, launching the bombs from planes that remain inside Russian airspace. Numerous Ukrainian sources said F-16s would protect Ukraine’s second city from these weapons.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said last month: “Against these, even air defence systems are not so useful, only aviation. The F-16 has a longer range than Russian MiG and Su planes.”

Ollongren said Ukraine would be able to use the Dutch-donated fighter jets to carry out attacks inside Russia, providing that the use is for defensive purposes and complies with international law. Denmark has also said Ukraine would be permitted to use its F-16 fighter jets to attack targets inside Russia.

“We have seen that it is necessary for Ukraine to be able to strike inside Russia. Otherwise, Russia will always have an advantage. Allowing Ukraine to use weapons across the border enhances the efficiency of their military actions,” said Ollongren.

While Ukraine is eager to get the planes in the sky, Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst with the Rusi thinktank, said the right time to deploy F-16s was a “risk-timeframe judgment call”. “I hope it will be made when they are tactically and operationally ready, pilots and ground crew, and not on the basis that ‘things are looking bad, we need a political win’,” he said in a recent podcast.

A pilot in a MiG-29. Pilots would have much more autonomy in F-16 fighter jets. Photograph: LIBKOS/AP

Bronk said tactics for flying F-16s would be completely new for pilots used to flying Soviet-designed MiG-29s or Su-27s. Those planes tend to fly with a high degree of intervention from the ground, with commanders authorising weapons releases from the base, thousands of feet below the pilot. F-16 pilots, by contrast, have a lot more autonomy in the cockpit and the planes and weapons are designed to reflect this, he said.

The F-16 represents a significant advancement over Ukraine’s current fleet, including the MiG-29, Su-24, and Su-25, which have been heavily strained and damaged by the conflict. Compared with the MiG-29, Su-27, and Su-25, the F-16 can carry a larger payload of weapons, matching the capacity of Ukraine’s tactical bomber, the Su-24. Additionally, the F-16 is equipped with a more powerful radar system, which can help mitigate the radar disadvantage that Kyiv has experienced during the war.

F-16s tend to be more pilot-friendly, Stallmann said, with intuitive controls and displays that allow flyers to keep their heads up.

Stallmann said each F-16 needed about 10 people to operate the aircraft, including the two pilots.

He said there are two training tracks, one to retrain experienced pilots to use F-16s, which is mainly taking place in Denmark and the US, and the second to train new pilots from scratch in Romania. “We have people who said: ‘I want to be a pilot.’ We test them and train them from zero,” he said.

F-16s require a complicated maintenance regimen. Instructors who have been trained in the Netherlands are expected to pass on their knowledge to others in Ukraine. Photograph: Jonas Roosens/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to the pilots, the F-16s require a complicated maintenance regimen. The instructors trained in the Netherlands are now expected to pass on their knowledge to others back in Ukraine.

“The issue is not so much with training the pilots as with the ground staff; there’s a whole range of people that need totally different training before these can be operated,” said one Ukrainian military source.

Some experts warned that using the F-16s will come with challenges, noting that Nato militaries would not deploy the planes without a wide range of other aircraft such as newer F-35s.

But Stallmann welcomed a decision by Sweden to provide two Saab surveillance aircraft to Ukraine, saying they would provide crucial “in-the-air oversight” that would enhance the capabilities of the F-16s. He refused to comment on which missiles the F-16s would be equipped with, stating only that the jets would be given a “wide range of weapons”.

Russia will seek to destroy F-16s deployed in airfields on the ground, requiring them to be carefully concealed in the first instance and defended by anti-missile systems to avoid serious losses almost immediately after they arrive in the country.

Serhii Holubtsov, the commander of the Ukrainian air force, said last week that a number of F-16s would be stationed at airbases abroad. Stallman said that some maintenance of the jets would be done in Ukraine, adding there was “no set plan in place” yet for F-16s to be repaired in the west.

Despite all the hurdles, Ukrainian aviation experts hope that the F-16s will be a gamechanger. “With F-16s, we can achieve parity in the sky above Ukraine and bring serious losses to Russian aviation in the border zone,” said Khrapchynskyi.

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