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Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago, officials in Kyiv have been asking their Western allies to supply the country’s air force with advanced warplanes such as the F-16. But the United States, which manufactures the fighter jet, was long reluctant to provide it, or to allow other countries that have F-16s to re-export them to Ukraine.
American officials worried that the jets could be used to hit targets inside Russia, potentially escalating the conflict, and said that sending Ukraine other weapons was a higher priority. But President Biden reversed course on Friday, telling allies that he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on the F-16 and that the United States would work with other countries to supply Kyiv with the jets.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed what he called “the historic decision of the United States,” and said it would “greatly enhance our army in the sky.”
Here’s what we know about how the move could affect Ukraine’s air force.
How strong is the Ukrainian air force?
Ukraine inherited a sizable but aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets and helicopters, which is a legacy of its history as a part of the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian air force fleet includes fighter jets such as the MiG-29, bombers, and transport and training aircraft, Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the force, said in an interview on Saturday.
Western military analysts estimate that Ukraine’s combined fleet, belonging to air and ground forces, has been depleted by more than a third since the Russian invasion began. Ukraine has lost at least 60 of its 145 fixed-wing planes and 32 of 139 helicopters, according to U.S. military information that was among the classified material leaked on the Discord social media platform in recent months. The document was not dated.
The Ukrainian air force rarely reveals numbers regarding its fleet or other details, including incidents of planes shot down or otherwise destroyed. But officials have acknowledged some losses in the course of the war, as well as difficulties with the repair and replacement of damaged planes.
“The newest plane is from 1991,” Colonel Ihnat said. “And all this should be serviced, repaired and spare parts obtained.”
Obtaining spare parts has become a problem, since Russia is the only producer of many of those parts. Even before the full-scale invasion, the trade of such items had largely ceased after 2014, when Russian-backed forces seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
Overall, the Ukrainian air force is “technologically outmatched and badly outnumbered” compared with the Russian air force, according to a November report by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
How do the Ukrainians use their planes?
When Russian forces jammed Ukrainian air defense systems in the opening days of the war, Ukrainian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters provided air defense over most of the country, engaging in air-to-air clashes to thwart Russian bombing raids, according to the institute’s report.
Ukrainian fighter aircraft inflicted some losses on Russian aircraft but “also took serious casualties,” the report said. The Ukrainians took losses in some friendly-fire incidents in the days that followed as they scrambled to introduce new air defense systems.
Nevertheless, despite having a superior fleet, Russia has not been able to achieve air supremacy throughout Ukraine, thanks to the Ukrainians’ strong air defenses. Those defenses have become increasingly robust as Western nations contributed some of their most sophisticated weapons.
The Ukrainian air force continues to fly combat missions, and Ukrainian planes and helicopters are often seen flying close to the eastern front line. In recent weeks, Poland and Slovakia have supplied Ukraine with replacement MiG-29s, the first transfers the country has received to boost its depleted fleet. Some are not serviceable and will be used for spare parts, Colonel Ihnat said.
Still, Ukrainian jets and helicopters are vulnerable to Russian air defense systems and limit their actions so as not to stray into Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian jets and attack helicopters have developed a tactic of flying low, unleashing unguided rockets from Ukrainian territory, then immediately backing away to avoid antiaircraft fire. Russian aircraft use similar tactics but have the advantage of superior firepower, which allows them to fire rockets and gliding bombs from a greater distance.
“Russian pilots have been cautious throughout the war,” the RUSI institute report said, “so even a small number of Western fighters could have a major deterrent effect.”
Why do the Ukrainians want the F-16?
The Ukrainians do not want to use the jets only as a deterrent.
A group of Ukrainian Parliament members speaking at the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month said they wanted the F-16 because its radar can locate targets on the ground hundreds of miles away, allowing pilots to stay safely over Ukrainian-held territory while launching weapons into Russian-occupied areas.
Colonel Ihnat said that in addition to its being used for air defense — that is, to shoot down incoming Russian missiles and drones — the plane could provide cover for Ukrainian troops trying to advance in any counteroffensive. He noted that it could also be used to ward off Russian planes that have started launching guided bombs from at least 30 miles from the Ukrainian front line; to defend the sea route that lets Ukrainian grain leave the country; and to gain air supremacy over the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
None of those objectives can be achieved with Ukraine’s current fleet of Soviet-designed aircraft, he said.
“The fleet is super old,” Colonel Ihnat said. “We have four to five times fewer aircraft than the Russians, and the range of the planes is four to five times less than those of the Russians.”
How would the F-16 increase Ukraine’s capabilities?
The small, single-engine and highly maneuverable fighter-bomber has long been a mainstay of the United States Air Force, which used it extensively in combat during the 1991 gulf war, in the Balkans, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to an Air Force description of the warplane, the F-16 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is able to strike targets on the ground more than 500 miles away while defending itself with air-to-air missiles.
Western and Ukrainian military analysts have said that Ukraine’s air force needs such modern Western fighters and missiles to sustainably counter Russian planes, which have a greater depth of firepower, and to hold their ground against the Russian juggernaut, which has used bombers relentlessly to destroy large cities such as Mariupol and Bakhmut to capture them.
Although Mr. Biden does not believe that fighter jets will play an important role on the Ukrainian side of the conflict for a while, providing them is part of the thinking about how to defend Ukraine even after the current phase of the war is over.
Ukrainian officials have long said that Ukraine needs an army equipped and trained to NATO standards with modern aircraft to be able to guard its border with Russia over the long term. The decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine suggests that the Biden administration and its allies now believe that, too, and that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-like armistice — Ukraine will need a long-term capability to deter an angry, sanctioned Russia.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Odesa, Ukraine, John Ismay from Washington, and David Sanger from Hiroshima, Japan.
Carlotta Gall is a senior correspondent currently covering the war in Ukraine. She previously was Istanbul bureau chief, covered the aftershocks of the Arab Spring from Tunisia, and reported from the Balkans during the war in Kosovo and Serbia, and from Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2001. She was on a team that won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. @carlottagall • Facebook
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Why does Ukraine want them so much? The F-16 has both offensive and defensive capabilities. In the short term, Ukrainian officials say, F-16s and other advanced Western fighter jets are needed to enhance air defenses, since frequent barrages of Russian missiles are exhausting Kyiv's existing ground-launched systems.How many F-16 does Ukraine need? ›
Ukraine is likely to need up to 100 F-16s, but "certainly upwards of 60 to start with," former British Royal Air Force Senior Commander and Air Marshal Greg Bagwell told Newsweek. However, Kyiv's air force would need more aircraft than it can actively fly at one time, experts stress.How many F-16s does the US have? ›
As the producing country with the largest stockpile (936 active aircraft), the U.S. has however already pledged to take part in the training of Ukrainian pilots to use the F-16. As the data in our chart shows, after the Americans, it is Turkey that has the most F-16s (243 aircraft).Is MiG 29 better than F-16? ›
Below 200 knots, the MiG-29 has incredible nose-pointing capability down to below 100 knots. The F-16, however, enjoys an advantage in the 200 knot-plus regime. At higher speeds, we can power above them to go to the vertical. And our turn rate is significantly better.Why do Ukraine want fighter jets? ›
Of what use could Western fighters be? Russia has positioned advanced ground-based air defenses in parts of Ukraine it occupies. They increase risks to Ukrainian aircraft of flying over Russian-controlled territory. So, to support ground force operations Ukraine needs to suppress or destroy Russian air defenses.Why is f16 so popular? ›
The reason it's so popular is not because it's the most advanced fighter aircraft on the market but because it's small, fast, agile, highly manoeuvrable, lightweight and at $15-18 million each, relatively cheap.What's better F-16 or f18? ›
The F-18 has some advantages in combat that the F-16 cannot match. It has the ability to take off from aircraft carriers, allowing a more tactical insert into the battle-space. In addition, the F-18 has a longer combat radius of 400 to 500 nautical miles, as opposed to the F-16's combat radius of 296 nautical miles.What is the Russian equivalent of the F-16? ›
Sukhoi Su-57 - Wikipedia.How much does an F-16 cost? ›
Twelve F-16s, a lightweight multirole fighter class that first entered service in 1978, are being acquired for $4.21 billion - meaning each airframe and its associated weaponry, spare parts and maintenance equipment will set the Jordanian defence budget back a little over $350 million.Is F 35 better than F-16? ›
The F-35 might beat an F-16 because of its vastly superior stealth capabilities. The F-16, however, has proven its speed and maneuverability for several decades.
Did you know the F-16 Fighting Falcon has the second best air-to-air kill ratio of modern Western fighters? To date F-16s have shot down 71 enemy aircraft, for two (be it controversial) losses. Not bad for a light fighter.Which country has the best fighter jet in the world? ›
For starters, the United States is often considered supreme in terms of producing highly sophisticated aircraft, like fighter jets. The F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-18 Super Hornet, and F-22 Raptor are just a few examples of top fighters.What is the F-16 dogfight record? ›
The F-16 has an official name—Fighting Falcon—that nobody uses. To those who fly, arm, or maintain it, it is “the Viper.” It has been the most popular fighter of its time, with some 4,100 F-16s delivered to more than 20 countries. It has flown more than 200,000 combat sorties. Its air combat record: 71-to-zero.Can MiG-29 beat f18? ›
With the helmet mounted display (HMD) along with the Vympel R-73 (NATO reporting name AA-11 Archer) off-boresight short-range air-to-air missile, the MiG-29 Fulcrums had a clear advantage in dogfights over the Western counterpart, the US Air Force F/A-18 Hornet.What is the fastest MiG fighter? ›
The fastest fighter jet is the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat, capable of Mach 3.2 or 2,190mph.Who gave Ukraine fighter jets? ›
PRAGUE (AP) — Slovakia's government on Friday approved a plan to give Ukraine its fleet of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the second NATO member country to heed the Ukrainian government's pleas for warplanes to help defend against Russia's invasion.How many fighter jets does Ukraine have left? ›
Flight International's 2022 almanac of air forces listed the Ukrainian service as having 43 MiG-29s and 26 Su-27s in its fleet.How many fighter jets does NATO have? ›
|Characteristic||Number of military aircraft|
|Ground attack aircraft||1,108|
Supersonic jets can fly from New York to L.A. in 2.5 hours (or less)What is the most maneuverable fighter jet in the US? ›
F-22 Raptor, the first U.S. operational supermaneuverable fighter aircraft. It has thrust vectoring and a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.26 at 50% fuel.
The F-16 is a fourth-generation supersonic multirole fighter, which entered service with the US Air Force almost two decades later. Obviously, the F-16 has much more advanced characteristics, including a combat radius of 547 km, compared to 370 km of MiG-21.Who would win in a dogfight an F-16 or an F-15? ›
The F-15 is considered to have a higher durability and stronger air-to-air combat capabilities than the F-16 due to its heavy armor and upgraded avionics systems.Can F-15 beat F-16? ›
Overall, the F-16 appears less advantageous than the F-15 due to its lower maximum speed, service ceiling, and slower rate of climb. However, though the F-16 is less powerful than the F-15, it is more maneuverable as a single-engine fighter aircraft.Is the F-16 outdated? ›
While the F-16 is still in production, and is being marketed to export clients as the F-16V with improved avionics and sensors integrated onto the older airframe, the design is increasingly considered obsolete by the U.S. and other high end air forces such as Singapore.Does the US Navy fly F-16? ›
The F-16N Viper is a US Navy version of the Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Viper was built in small numbers specifically for the Navy to serve in the "Aggressor" role in combat training.Does the US Army have F-16s? ›
Several commands of the United States Air Force (USAF) as well as the United States Navy (USN) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) use various models of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.How many F-16 are left? ›
Lockheed Martin, the US manufacturer, says there are more than 3,000 F-16s in service in 25 countries. Today, it has been superseded by the F-35, but it is still being manufactured for sale by Lockheed in South Carolina.Can a civilian own a F-16? ›
While extremely cost prohibitive, buying your one warplane is legal as the planes are demilitarized. However, the purchase price doesn't include the price of maintenance and operation, which can costs thousands per flight hour.How much does an F-16 pilot helmet cost? ›
Components such as the liners fitted to an individual pilot cannot be reused. Because the helmet is custom-made and estimated to cost at least $400,000 each, pilots don't use them during flight school and simulator training; they use mockups instead.What is the most expensive fighter jet? ›
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II:
With incredible speed reaching Mach 1.6, it's the most expensive fighter jet ever built, costing an estimated $77 million per unit today.
With its first aerial kills under its belt, the F-35 continues its fight to prove itself on the modern battlefield.Is SU 57 better than F-35? ›
The Su-57 is literally thousands of times larger on radar than American jets like the F-35 and F-22. Any holes or gaps in the exterior shell of a stealth aircraft can dramatically increase its detectability.What is the most advanced version of the F-16? ›
The Block 70 F-16 has better electronics, radar, and cockpit displays than older F-16s flown by the United States and allies. Besides Bahrain, the jet has been ordered by Bulgaria, Slovakia, Taiwan, and most recently Jordan, which signed a contract for 12 Block 70s last week.Has an F-16 ever been shot down in combat? ›
May 2, 2005 – 2 F/A-18 Hornets of VMFA-323 are shot down by Iraqi/Al-Qaeda Insurgents over south-central Iraq. Both pilots killed. November 27, 2006- An F-16 Fighting Falcon was shot down by Al-Qaeda/Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah while on a low-altitude ground-strafing run. The pilot, Major Troy Gilbert, was killed.Has the F-16 ever lost a dogfight? ›
F-16s have been used by the United States in Afghanistan since 2001. One USAF F-16 fighter was lost during the operations in Afghanistan: on 3 April 2013 a USAF F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield in eastern Afghanistan's Parwan province killing its pilot.Has the F-15 ever been shot down? ›
“The lore of the F-15—its' got 104 air-to-air kills and it's never been shot down in combat,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Cox, an Eagle Driver who currently commands the 114th Fighter Squadron at Kingsley Field.Who is the best fighter pilot in the world? ›
A new book examines the life of the WWII German ace. Luftwaffe fighter pilot Erich Hartmann was exceedingly good at aerial combat.What is the best dogfight jet? ›
The F-15 Eagle and its variants are some of the most capable jet fighters ever. McDonnell Douglas created and produced it primarily as an air superiority tactical fighter. The Eagle is one of the most successful fighters of the modern era.What is the most reliable fighter jet? ›
Not only is the F135 the most powerful and most advanced fighter engine ever produced, it's also the most dependable – demonstrating a step change in readiness and reliability over 4th generation fighter engines.What pilot has the most dogfight kills? ›
Erich Hartmann, with 352 official kills the highest scoring fighter pilot of all time.
The last dogfights between piston-engine, propeller-driven airplanes weren't fought in the skies over Germany in the 1940s or even Korea in the 1950s. They occurred in Central America in 1969, and all of the combatants were flying U.S.-built Corsairs and Mustangs.When was the last real dogfight? ›
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the last ever dogfight occurred in 1969 over Central America between Honduras and El Salvador. With that said, the aerial tactics used during WWII are still considered by many to have won the war.Has a MiG-29 ever been shot down? ›
Six MiG-29s were shot down during the NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, three by USAF F-15s, one by a USAF F-16, and one by a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16. However, one aircraft, according to its pilot, was hit by friendly fire from the ground. Another four were destroyed on the ground.Can the MiG-29 pull a cobra? ›
Cobra can be done by MiG-29 and Su-27
The Cobra manoeuvre is named after the Soviet test pilot Viktor Pugachyov, who first performed the Cobra maneuver publicly in 1989 at the Paris Le Bourget air show, and shocked the Western spectators who couldn't believe it. The Soviet Untion still existed at this time.
As for the Cobra - I have seen it done many times by both the Su-27 and MiG-29 - at Zhukovsky near Moscow. I have to say though that the Su-27's Cobra is more impressive - as it is done from level flight. I have only ever seen the MiG-29 do it when it was in a slight climb - maybe only about 20 - 30 deg.Can a jet go Mach 10? ›
Mach 10 speed has never been achieved by a manned aircraft, though, so it has never been tested. Mach 10 has, however, been achieved by a spacecraft - on November 16, 2004, NASA launched the X-43A, an air-breathing hypersonic vehicle, and was able to reach real Mach 10 while being pushed into the atmosphere.Which fighter jet has the fastest climb rate? ›
The fastest climb in aviation history. Record of the Sukhoi P-42 (Su-27) to an altitude of 12 km.What is the oldest MiG jet? ›
Twin engines made the MiG-19, first flown in 1953, the first supersonic fighter of European manufacture, but it was surpassed in 1955 by the MiG-21, a lightweight, single-engine interceptor capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.What is the Russian equivalent of the F 16? ›
Sukhoi Su-57 - Wikipedia.Does the US military use F 16? ›
Several commands of the United States Air Force (USAF) as well as the United States Navy (USN) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) use various models of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon (AKA 'Viper') can reach impressive top speeds just over Mach 1.7, which is just over 1,300 MPH! The average cruising speed is 577 MPH. That said, the F-18 Hornet can reach a top speed of Mach 1.8, which translates to 1,381 MPH.Which is better F-15 or F-16? ›
The F-15 is a twin-engine fighter jet capable of extremely high speeds and altitudes, while the F-16 is a less powerful but more maneuverable single-engine fighter aircraft.Has an F-16 ever been lost in combat? ›
F-16s have been used by the United States in Afghanistan since 2001. One USAF F-16 fighter was lost during the operations in Afghanistan: on 3 April 2013 a USAF F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield in eastern Afghanistan's Parwan province killing its pilot.