Ukraine’s new F-16 fighter jets will strike fear into Putin’s pilots

The supersonic fighter code-named “Viper” far outclasses the Russian jets.

Greg Bagwell

. 22 May 2023 •

Since the Russian invasion, Ukraine has been given a staggering amount of military equipment by friends and allies. But while Volodymyr Zelensky had largely received the contents of his wish list, there was one glaring exception. Despite repeated pleas, Ukraine had not received F-16 combat aircraft to replace its aged fleet of MiGs and Sukhoi, jets which are markedly inferior to those flown by Russian pilots.

Now US President Joe Biden has given the legally necessary green light for a small coalition of Western allies to transfer the jet to Kyiv. Things are moving fast. The UK and other nations have signalled their readiness to offer pilot training, and we have seen confirmation that cross-over training to the F-16 for experienced pilots can be done in a few months rather than years. 

All that’s needed now are the aircraft, parts and ancillaries to make it happen. With over 4,600 F-16s built, multiple user nations and a production line still running today, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a few “spares” lying around.

Their arrival could well mark a turning point in the battle for supremacy in the air. Although the F-16 made its debut as far back as 1976, it has kept itself relevant and is in service with many air forces around the world. Indeed new export models are still coming off the production line today. The likely European models have all been through a mid-life update and will be able to carry the most modern and capable western weapons.

As a platform the F-16 is timeless. It’s relatively simple, fast, agile, flexible and its single engine makes it a relatively easy aircraft to maintain. It has a highly capable radar and the most up to date avionics and networks. In combat it’s a real handful for an adversary, relatively hard to spot on radar and even harder with the naked eye. Being supersonic and able to pull 9G its code-name of Viper is well earned. Most importantly, the F-16 is a multi-role fighter, capable of fulfilling the air-to-air and air-to-ground role as well as the highly specialised role of anti-surface-to-air missiles. 

It has a modern and highly capable electronic warfare suite including detection and counter measures for all current Russian systems. The F-16 has been the backbone of NATO’s air defence for decades and will only be replaced when F35s are delivered over the coming years. And it will make a real difference to this conflict.

More potent air power will give Ukraine greater options whilst restricting those of Russia. Whether it’s intercepting long range missiles, keeping Russian aircraft under threat and at distance, sowing fear in Russian ground based air defence systems, or just protecting Ukraine troops and more vulnerable aircraft, the F-16 will have a significant impact. But even more important than all these military reasons, it gives Ukraine hope and a belief that we have their back; they deserve more than half a chance in their titanic struggle. 

We have seen what they can do with a few cheap drones; now imagine what they can do with modern Western jets.

To date, the majority of equipment offered to Ukraine has been about holding the line or stopping the endless salvos of long range missiles aimed at Ukraine’s cities and civilians. As welcome and generous this has been, it has been focussed on saving lives and not losing more territory, rather than reversing Russian gains. 

The recent transfer of Slovakian and Polish MiGs and Western tanks – albeit painfully slowly and after much political wrangling – signalled a step-change in this process. Most recently, the UK’s offer of Storm Shadow missiles broke the taboo against offering capabilities that can theoretically strike beyond Ukraine’s borders. More advanced western airpower had long been seen as a step too far for those nervous about triggering Russian retaliation. I’m not sure Putin’s red lines ever meant very much to Ukrainians under constant attack in their homes, fired upon by inter-continental missiles launched by strategic bombers from within the safety of Russian airspace. Now Ukraine will get the jets it needs to fight back. 

And with them, the greatest signal yet of the West’s support now and for the future. And the future matters. Regardless of whether combat-hardened Ukrainian pilots flying F-16s makes Kyiv’s integration into Nato easier – and it does – Ukraine will need to patrol and protect its borders once they are re-established. The F-16 will fulfil this role admirably. 

Nations under threat of survival can do extraordinary things when given half a chance. And half a chance it still is; outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded Ukraine has been stoically defending the frontline, albeit one now significantly inside their internationally recognised border. They have long deserved better. Now they’re getting it.

Greg Bagwell CB CBE is a retired Air Marshal and combat pilot. He was the UK’s Air Commander for four years and is current President of the Air and Space Power Association


  1. That will be great!
    Meantime, give them what they need now: long range air-to-air missiles that can be fired from Ukraine’s MiG’s and SU’s.

  2. Selected comments from DT readers:

    D Millgate: Was waiting for your assessment, Baggers-thanks.
    If they can get enough airframes, pilots and ground crews combat ready in a short enough timeframe, then there is no reason why well-flown F16 As or Bs, with MLU and modern weapons, together with proper tactics and direction, cannot achieve total air superiority pretty quickly.

    graeme scott : We and Ukraine must not lose this war…the consequences are dire and the world will shift for 2 generations to the Chinese and the BRICs …..this is a measure of the seriousness that dementia Biden has sanctioned this. 

Andrew Larkin : Good luck to them, meanwhile our Liberal left complain about stopping oil and anti monanarchy nonsense, rather than demonstrating outside the Russians Embassy. What a pathetic bunch they are.

Andrew Larkin : Good luck to them, meanwhile our Liberal left complain about stopping oil and anti monanarchy nonsense, rather than demonstrating outside the Russians Embassy. What a pathetic bunch they are.

    Adam Bakewell: Ukrainians have proven consistently they can train faster and use the weapons better than their western counterparts. Look at every article about their training from tanks to patriots and they’ve shown they can step up – and then some. No Western patriot battery operator ever had to contend with hypersonic missiles + a cruise missile barrage in the space of 2-3 minutes, and shot down

    Tim Cullis : It’s not going to be a walk in the park, the F-16 is a 40-year old fighter with a 25-year old MLU (mid life upgrade) package. Consequently the F-16A/B MLU airframes have an almost obsolete APG-66 radar meaning the Russian Su-35 and MiG-31 aircraft can both see further and shoot further than the F-16 MLUs. RU has A-50 AWACS-type aircraft for long range detection, UA doesn’t.
    On the positive side it is possible to arm the F-16 with the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile similar to SortmShadow). Also could uparm with AIM-120 and LRASM.

    John Waterston : Reply to Tim Cullis :
    This is an aircraft that can be defeated by current SAM technology. It will need multiple dispersed runways, which Ukraine don’t have, and maintenance facilities, which Ukraine don’t have. They are currently used by the US in the same way our own Red Arrows do flypasts. This piece is just fluff.

    Ian Carmichael: There should be no safe Russian airspace. Russian land and towns OK as long as they are not used to launch missiles and artillery at Ukraine. But there needs to be a set of red lines that make sense. Anywhere that fires a missile becomes a legitimate target and Russia should know that.

    Charlie Wimbledon : Any news on the efforts to liberate Belgorod? Looks like it’s Russians that are carrying out some kind of special military operation there…

    Ruth Nares :Reply to Charlie Wimbledon : Yes pro-Ukraine Russians..

    Mike Machin : What a beautifully-written article, engaging, succinct and full of useful information and facts without the bias and padding one often finds.
    Thank you for your contribution Mr Bagwell.

Brian Cluer : Reply to Mike Machin : As a former fighter pilot I can’t understand why NATO countries can’t train experienced Ukrainian pilots in just 3 or 4 months maximum. Some were talking “years”. 50 hours or so on type would be adequate. Ukraine should be given maximum support – it’s better than having to fight the Russkis ourselves.

    Ralph Hall: They had better hurry up before Trump gets elected because he will pull the plug. We know what he means when he says he will stop the war in a day.
    Putin is just biding his time.

    Stephen Crowe : Why oh why has it taken so long for the West to do the right thing? F16s should have been provided over a year ago.

    Gavin Thomas: I guess, US trained pilots could form an “Eagle Squadron” – as they did in WW2, before the USA joined the war against another invasive force.
    There must be lots of retired highly trained F16 pilots out there, anxious to test their combat skills…
    …Top Gun!

    Farmer Brown: Technical arguments I’ve read in Twitter seem to indicate that the F-16s being sent will not have the latest in phased array radars—they only use the AN/APG66V2A radar, which is close to obsolescent. This will put them at a distinct disadvantage against modern Russian jets and their longer range missiles.
    That’s because this small, antique APG-66 radar can’t see as far as bigger, more modern Russian radars on the MiGs and Sukhois. The R-37 Russian missile also has a significantly longer range than the AIM-120C for the F-16s.
    These planes will also struggle to suppress the air defenses that Russia has available, and much of it is extremely deadly, so these things will still have to be very careful where and how they fly.
    They say pilot training will take 4 months. Of course, they should have started this last year.
    So, these F-16s aren’t useless if used intelligently. They also need a supply of the right weapons to carry on them, then they may make a real difference, but it’s not the cake walk some think it is.

    Star comment :

    Aminul Islam: Hope the Ukrainians remain as meticulous and as dogged as ever before – even when they receive the F-16s. The correct use to make the maximum impact on the enemy of humanity will help not only the Ukrainians but the whole world.
    The Russians have been holding the world hostage for a long time. They have been the sponsor of evil regimes around the world helping them to crush and trample democracy and ordinary people in those countries.
    Time for just deserts for the habitual criminals of Russia who have been proud of the fact that they managed to instil fear in the world and, thus, carry on with their evil acts.
    Time to sap, cripple and destroy the chief of the evil axis – once and for all.

    • Farmer Brown is placing too many hopes on ruskie technology. The avionics of the F-16 are superior to what the Migs or Sukhois have. In addition, they have been using the R-37 against the Ukrainian air force, and the AFU is still active in the airspace of Ukraine. It’s very high speed makes it very non-maneuverable. The F-16 has a very small “cross-section” on radars, making it a difficult target.
      To put it in perspective, the mafia air force still can’t achieve air superiority, despite Ukraine having only Mig-29s and Su-27s, and this only a handful, compared to the cockroaches. I strongly believe that F-16s will give the orcs some real headaches.

  3. “We have seen what they can do with a few cheap drones; now imagine what they can do with modern Western jets.”

    And this, four months ago…

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