Which fighter jet is best for Ukraine as it fights off Russia?

Mar 7, 2023

WASHINGTON — When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the Kremlin had an air force that could draw on hundreds of MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets in reserve.

Ukraine’s fighter fleet was, by some estimations, far more meager, with 69 jets at most. Experts say that put it at about one-tenth the size of Russia’s.

Ukraine and its supporters say Western fighter jets are now necessary to tip the balance in Ukraine’s favor, while allowing for close air support and air interdiction missions.

“Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during an in-person address to Congress in December. “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”

In a February letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the administration to provide F-16s or other fighters to Ukraine, and to quickly make a decision so the country has time to train its pilots.

“In contrast to the current, ground-based air defense platforms currently used by Ukrainian forces, fighter aircraft’s ability to quickly traverse a large battlespace with a significant weapons payload could prove decisive for control of Ukrainian airspace this year,” the lawmakers — Reps. Jared Golden, D-Maine; Tony Gonzales, R-Texas; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.; and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. — wrote.

Over the last year, the military aid sent from the United States and allies has steadily grown in firepower; weapons include loitering munitions, artillery, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and more. Most recently, after weeks of hesitation, the United States in January approved the delivery of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, alongside Germany’s decision to provide Leopard 2 battle tanks.

Smoke billows from the flaming debris of a crashed Ukrainian fighter jet near the Donetsk area in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The aircraft was flying low low over rebel-held territory. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Some Western government leaders have kept the door cracked open when it comes to providing fighter jets, with U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace telling journalists in February: “Don’t rule anything in, don’t rule anything out.”

But not everyone is convinced. Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl recently told lawmakers weapons for dominating Ukrainian airspace, like Western warplanes, are worth less than air defense equipment aimed at denying the skies to Russia, like the Patriot system.

F-16s or other fighters are “a priority for the Ukrainians, but [are] not one of their top three priorities,” Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28. “Their top priorities are air defense systems [and] keeping their interceptors and air defense network alive against Russian cruise missiles and the like, and Iranian drones, artillery and fires … and armor and mechanized systems.”

Kahl said providing even three dozen older F-16s would cost roughly $3 billion — and a bigger fleet could cost as much as $11 billion.

During the same hearing, ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Smith of Washington expressed skepticism about the feasibility and effect providing F-16s would have on the war.

“Even if we basically said there’s nothing more important than that one weapon system and spent all of our time and all of our resources on doing it, the best case scenario [is] we could maybe get some operational F-16s into Ukraine within a year, maybe eight months if we really pushed it,” Smith said. “And this is getting lucky. Because you don’t just have to train the pilots; you have to train the mechanics, you have to have airfields that can accommodate the F-16 and you have to have the spare parts to make it work.”

A Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker and MiG-29 Fulcrum escort two B-1B Lancers during a training mission for Bomber Task Force Europe on May 29, 2020, in the Black Sea region. (Courtesy of the Ukrainian Air Force)

‘An existential fight’

Ukraine’s fighter pilots fly MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker jets. Flight International’s 2022 almanac of air forces listed the Ukrainian service as having 43 MiG-29s and 26 Su-27s in its fleet.

But Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for air power and technology at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said Flight International’s tally is “quite optimistic.” Ukraine’s real situation is much more troubled, he said, though he declined to provide specific examples, citing security reasons. Bronk, who is also a professor at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, has extensively researched Ukraine’s military needs and traveled to the country last fall.

Russia, on the other hand, has roughly 370 MiG-29, -31 and -35 fighters as well as 350 Su-27, -30 and -35 fighters, according to Flight International’s almanac. Fighters such as the MiG-35 and Su-35 in Russia’s fleet are also more advanced than Ukraine’s.

Russia has several significant advantages over Ukraine’s Air Force, Bronk noted, besides quantity. Russian fighters have “drastically better” radar and missile capabilities, he said. The country also has airborne early warning and command-and-control aircraft, which Ukraine lacks, as well as better ground-based air defenses with the radar to support them.

Newer, more advanced fighters and weapons would allow Ukraine to suppress enemy air defenses, according to Heather Penney, a former F-16 pilot and now a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. With those cleared, she added, Ukraine could then carry out close air support missions and interdiction strikes against Russian tank columns, artillery emplacements, massed infantry and ships.

This would relieve pressure on Ukraine’s land forces and free them up to conduct their own operations.

As for drones, Ukraine has creatively used them, Penney said, but they “are not going to turn the tide of the conflict.”

For example, Ukraine used its handful of inexpensive Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones to bomb Russian vehicles and other military targets in the war’s initial months. Ukraine has also used U.S.-provided loitering munitions, such as the AeroVironment-made Switchblade 300 and 600 and the Air Force-developed Phoenix Ghost.

But the U.S. is so far balking at sending Ukraine more advanced drones such as the Grey Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper.

The country is not lacking for pilots, Bronk said, but the problem is they don’t have enough airworthy jets. Ukraine is having an especially hard time with its Flanker availability, he added.

The fact that Ukraine’s fighter fleet is Russian-made severely limits its access to spare parts, which worsens aircraft availability. That is a major reason Ukraine must move away from MiGs and Sukhois and toward Western fighters, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said at the July 2022 Aspen Security Forum.

Brown cited the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale and the European Eurofighter as possible candidates for Ukraine’s future fleet, besides American-made fighters.

Since Russia launched its invasion, Bronk said, Ukraine has bolstered its fighter fleet as much as it can by “aggressively” renovating aircraft that weren’t airworthy, and by dragging old frames out of mothballs to repair them.

“Those probably wouldn’t meet peacetime airworthiness — certainly not combat readiness — standards,” Bronk said. “But they’re in an existential fight, so of course they are making use of what they can.”

Considering the options

Ukraine has frequently asked for Western aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin-made F-16, but Bronk said the unique challenges its Air Force faces means there are better options.

Keeping an array of small air bases operational is tricky, he said, and Ukraine wouldn’t be able to resurface all its runways to keep them smooth and neat. In the chaos of war, he explained, Ukraine also might be unable to keep its runways regularly cleared of foreign object debris, which could prove devastating for the F-16, given its large, wide air intake below its fuselage that could suck up the rubbish.

Debris would also leave its undercarriage susceptible to damage if it kicks up any during takeoff or landing, he added.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper takes off from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., on Sept. 1, 2021. (Tech. Sgt. Emerson Nuñez/U.S. Air Force)

The F-16 “is a lightweight fighter designed for nice runways,” Bronk said. “Most Ukrainian runways are pretty rough. So if they’re moving around like that, the fighter has to be [able to] handle it and not suffer a massive increase in maintenance [needs], and the support equipment and maintenance arrangements have to be able to do it.”

Western fighters in Ukraine would immediately become priority targets for Russia, Bronk said, which would likely force Ukraine to continue its strategy of dispersing aircraft and moving them around. That would present further complications for the F-16, as its ground support equipment tends to be bulky and hard to disperse, he added.

A better option for Ukraine might be the Gripen, Bronk said, as its standard maintenance and logistics equipment can be loaded into standard 20-foot shipping containers and easily moved on trucks.

Meteor missiles are seen on a Eurofighter aircraft.

The Boeing-made F-18, designed for salty sea environments and more rugged than the F-16, is another option, Bronk said, and its support equipment is compact enough for Ukraine’s needs.

But while Western fighters are easier to fly than the MiG and Sukhoi aircraft, Bronk added, their mission systems and weapons technology are more complicated.

Training Ukrainian pilots — especially their experienced fighter pilots — on Western fourth-generation fighters shouldn’t be too hard, Penney said. It generally takes the U.S. Air Force eight months to a year to qualify its pilots on their fighters.

“They don’t need to be perfect, Penney said. “They need to be just good enough … that they can execute in combat.”

She said the U.S. could develop a streamlined, accelerated training program for Ukrainian pilots that would last two to two-and-a-half months.

But John Venable, a former F-16 pilot and senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said properly training Ukrainian pilots to employ the F-16 would be tricky.

“Learning to fly the F-16 is easy for a pilot,” Venable said. “Learning to employ the F-16 is hard.”

Training maintainers how to fix these fighters would also be a challenge, he added.

But the status quo, Penney said, is untenable. Without a modernized Ukrainian Air Force, she explained, the conflict has become a war of attrition, echoing the trench warfare of World War I.

That places Ukraine in a dire situation, she added.

“Ukraine only has so many people they can feed into the meat grinder of land warfare,” Penney said. “They need to move this into the third dimension, and you do that with aircraft.”


  1. “Ukraine only has so many people they can feed into the meat grinder of land warfare,” Penney said. “They need to move this into the third dimension, and you do that with aircraft.”

    What the sleepy Joe administration recently said about Ukraine not needing aircraft was a blatant lie. I demand to know why this stupid administration doesn’t want to see a quick end to this war!

    • I appreciate that you deem yourself a qualified military analyst, yet other are saying there are different priorities such air defense, artillery and mechanized vehicles.

      Were the US to provide the requested F-16s with the remaining allocated budget, what will happen to the other areas of need?

      There is a looming budgetary fight in the US and it’s not assured that sufficient additional aid will be allocated to support the maintenance of an F-16 program as well as meet the other needs. The fact that those opposed to Ukrainian aid can easily shut down the US Gov. by not approving a debt limit increase is problematic.

      Also, if F-16s were so effective with close air support in contested air space, then why the massive, massive outlays for F-35s? (hint: Russian air defense)

      In desert storm, the A-10s were credited with the majority of tank kills and 90% of the artillery kills and the F-16s were found to be extensively vulnerable to ground fire. Neither of them though, had to face the kind of contested air space that is Ukraine.

      • You can use F-16 for SEAD missions, probably also with Russian air defense. The U.S. still uses them for this purpose even though the F-35 is at their disposal.

        Currently this role is being conducted already with HARM anti-radiation missiles.

        The F-35 is not just bought because current fighter planes cannot do the job (Israel shows also older planes are perfectly capable of suppressing Russian air defense and even Ukraine shows it can be done with SU-27 with the right missiles) but to retain this in the future.

        Also, the idea might be that strikes can take place with the F-35 without SEAD missions.

        Also the F-35 has advantages in air-to-air combat.

        The F-16 might have been vulnerable because anti-air defense wasn’t properly defeated before they started using the F-16 for CAS missions.

        The A-10 is slower and even more vulnerable, although it can withstand cannon fire better.

        I do think one of the main issues with the F-16 is not its combat value but because it doesn’t work on poorly maintained or damaged runways, while a Gripen is much more suitable for that.

        Ukraine will have to dramatically improve runways to support the F-16.

        Indeed money can be a problem as future support packages aren’t guaranteed as the Republicans control the house.

        The majority of them support Ukraine, but the majority speaker doesn’t so he can not bring a new aid package up for voting.

        This may indeed be a legitimate concern, I did not think about that.

      • As far as the budget question is concerned, this is a non-argument. The Biden administration did say it will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, right? Does this mean ad infinitum? Or, until the budget is spent?
        Having said that, we have countless material sitting in various depots, collecting dust and costing money. We could easily hand over a 100 or so of any variety of planes and not even feel the pinch.
        As far as the survivability is concerned, the Ukrainian air force has managed to survive to this very day with its old, soviet-era equipment. I am quite confident about Ukraine’s ability to use Western planes very effectively, especially if we provide the proper weaponry.
        Going back to the budget, if we had assured the right equipment in the right amount and on a timely basis, we would spend a fraction of what we already have and will in the foreseeable future. The way the WH is helping Ukraine is not at all efficient. It wastes not only our tax money, but also countless Ukrainian lives, by letting this war drag out.

        • I agree, but I do believe Biden wants that but he cannot guarantee a new support packages after the latest 40 or so billion drawdown runs out.

          I don’t know why retired equipment are accounted for as often the value of it is zero dollars, such as the Hawk anti air system, but it probably has to do with regulations. The army would have to spend money to dispose of these weapons if they weren’t donated, but the are still on the balance sheet.

          Assuming Biden will not be able to get a new package through the House, it would make sense to only spend money on essentials such as ammo and artilley.

          I do agree that the war can be won without F-16’s, but it will be less pleasant for sure and take longer.

          Mounting Western weapons on MIGs give them similar capabilities as the F-16, and the Mig-29 is quite numerous in countries like Poland and Slovakia.

          It could even be the military fearing to run out of money before the end of the fiscal year and not getting a new package through in time.

          Then the aid will stop.

          I do think some kind of a deal will be made with the Republicans as the majority of them are pro-Ukrainian. But either the Biden administration or the military doesn’t like to gamble and hope for this.

          Does this mean I support this policy? No: even before Biden asked for 40 billion they should have known jets were badly needed and they controlled the house and the Senate so they could just as well have asked 50.

          Anyway, I hope Ukraine will get what it needs.
          I think I will stop trying to understand the situation and the reasoning, because I don’t think I’ll find out and it is mostly frustrating.

          I want to see Western jets with the Tryzub painted on it as soon as possible.

        • The sad reality is that the House has the “power of the purse”; the Republicans have a majority in the House; and the MAGA-nuts/QAnon crazies have an outsized influence there.

          So far, Congress has approved $113 billion in military, economic, humanitarian and other aid for Ukraine, not all of which has been spent yet. Anticipating trouble from the new Republican House, the White House and lame-duck Democratic majority last winter pushed through an aid package large enough to last until summer. At the current rate of spending, it would run out by mid-July, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

          “If you add Patriots, F-16s, long-range missiles and all these other things to the mix, then by definition the moment of truth comes sooner,” said former Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a strong supporter of Ukraine. “And I’m not sure if the proponents of those things on the Hill have a plan yet to overcome the inevitable MAGA resistance in the House. And if they don’t, it’s logical for Biden to husband the resources that he has and focus on the things that Ukraine needs the most, like ammunition.”

          I have no confidence that the Republican-controlled House will agree to continue funding the Ukraine war effort.

      • personally, I would not send the F-16 to Ukraine. Airfields in Ukraine simply are not good enough for it, and the maintenance requirements are too high. As is pointed out above, the ground maintenance components is simply too large. A Navy aircraft, such as the F-18, would be a much better choice and there are probably sufficient numbers in storage to be sent without weakening the US Navy. The Grippen would also be a good choice. Not sure about the Rafale as I have no idea what kind of equipment would have to be sent along with it. If support is like the F-16, then, it too, would be poor choice.

        I knew a man that flew OPFOR out of Key West NAS and flew both the F-18C and the F-16N. He had a high opinion of the 16, but said implied the F-18 was its equal. Specifically, he said, “The F-16 is a worthy opponent of the F-18.” Alas, Lex lost his life at NAS Fallon in March of ’12. He had also been Executive Officer at TOPGUN for two years.

  2. “Which fighter jet is best for Ukraine as it fights off Russia?”
    ~The one in Ukraine, in Ukrainian hands, protecting Ukrainian skies.

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