Get Ukraine The Airpower It Needs Before It’s Too Late

Aug 17, 2023

MQ-9 Reaper Aircraft Flies Without Pilot (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As the war grinds on in Ukraine, with every kilometer reclaimed from invading Russian forces costing more lives, firepower, and time, the United States and it allied partners must do everything possible to empower President Zelensky and his forces to achieve success.

Not only is this fight vital for Ukraine, but equities regarding the entire global order are at stake—especially as China applies lessons learned from the conflict to its decision-making calculus in the Pacific. That is why recent news reports suggesting that Ukraine will not see F-16 combat aircraft and trained pilots until the middle of 2024 are particularly disturbing. Given the combined challenges of a smaller population base and perennial issues tied to a sufficient flow of arms, Ukrainians cannot wage this war indefinitely. They need decisive help fast, with airpower at the top of the list.

The move by the U.S. State Department on August 17, 2023, promising Denmark and the Netherlands that it would approve transfer of their F-16s once training of Ukrainian pilots was complete is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be accomplished in getting effective airpower to Ukraine and sooner rather than later. On the same date, a Washington Post news alert reported, “U.S. intelligence assessment says Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to achieve key objective.”

The imperative for combat aircraft and a robust pilot pipeline is clear: it comes down to opening an additional domain of attack, while also protecting Ukraine from strikes. This is not something armies can do alone. As Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s military leader recently explained: “You can no longer do anything with just a tank with some armor, because the minefield is too deep, and sooner or later, it will stop and then it will be destroyed by concentrated fire.” Ukraine needs the attributes of the aerial dimension to project power over these obstacles, not grind through them meters at a time.

Embracing the values and virtues of airpower is something nearly every nation state has adopted since the advent of combat aviation in World War I. The reason is simple: harnessing the sky allows tremendous speed, agility, and lethality whether on offense or defense. Absent that, combatants are stuck slogging it out in the mud—with two sides bludgeoning each other until one is finally exhausted. It does not take a genius to figure out that Putin will win an attrition-centric fight against Ukraine. Russia simply has more military personnel and arms.

While the U.S. and its allies should be lauded for providing Ukraine with armaments necessary to stay alive in the face of Russia’s invasion, it is also important to recognize that this support has often been too long in arriving. The difference between winning and losing involves the element of time: assembling the right forces and employing them to net a desired objective when the conditions are right.

The generally slow decision-making processes of the U.S. and her allies have denied the Ukrainians key opportunities to route Russian forces in the earlier phases of the conflict. The delays in providing Ukraine airpower have given the Russians the gift of time and they have used it to solidify their positions providing them great advantage. This conflict could have ended last year before Putin’s armies entrenched amidst vast mine fields and supporting artillery. With that opportunity lost, it is time to expand the avenues of attack.

That is why the news this spring about the decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine was so consequential. The U.S. and its allies finally decided to provide assistance required to break the deadlock by projecting power over Russian defenses to attack key targets behind their lines—supply stores, logistics lines, command and control centers, and rear echelon forces. However, months later, F-16s and trained pilots have yet to arrive on Ukrainian flightlines and the latest predictions suggest delays will extend until 2024. As Michael Clarke, a visiting professor in the department of war studies at King’s College London, explained: “Now we may be giving them what they need, just about too late.”

That Ukraine needs help rebuilding its air force is beyond obvious. When Russia invaded last year, it had an overwhelming combat airpower advantage: 772 fighters versus Ukraine’s 69. These aircraft were also more modern and better maintained. A year and a half of combat has not improved Ukraine’s airpower position. The only way to redress this imbalance is to provide a decisive airpower surge for Ukrainian. This demands solutions at speed and scale. Not only are the mission demands high, but attrition will be substantial. The Ukrainians must be empowered to wage a decisive fight to win.

Too many pundits have wasted far too much time and energy debating what specific warplane would be best for this fight. The answer is simple: the best aircraft are the ones able to fly combat sorties the soonest. The Ukrainian people are fighting for their lives with their backs against the wall. Of course, F-16s are part of that answer. So too are other types that can be sourced, supplied with adequate spare parts, and manned with a sustainable pilot training program.

Nor should the conversation solely focus on manned aircraft. Given the threat and the nature of the missions that must be flow, the Ukrainians should also give very real consideration to the power afforded by uninhabited aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper—along with U.S. support. Pilots remain one of Ukraine’s most precious combat commodities. Missions that are particularly risky should be executed with uninhabited aircraft first and foremost. It is far easier to backfill a plane than a pilot. Added to this, there are combined tactics that manned and unmanned aircraft can cooperatively employ to address the threat, while also focusing on achieving mission results. This does not mean flying headlong into Russian defenses, but applying comprehensive air campaign planning to appropriately deal with the threat—but that takes the right aerial tool kit.

There will be losses but look at the broader circumstances in play. What’s the cost of Ukraine losing? That outcome would not be solely measured in Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces. The real consequences are far broader and severe, for it would signal to adversaries around the world that they will ultimately prevail if they can outlast their opponents. Overlay that in key regions around the globe and that portends serious risk. It could also drive consequences that could put America’s sons and daughters at risk. Taken in that light, is airpower for Ukraine really that expensive or difficult to provide?

The need for these solutions is now. While the bravery of Ukraine’s armed forces is beyond question, we need to recognize that the current bloody grind is simply not sustainable absent a breakthrough. Airpower is a key attribute critical to achieve that effect. We need to get serious about increasing the rate, scale, and scope at which it is delivered. As General Douglas MacArthur famously remarked: “The history of failure in war can almost always be summed up in two words: ‘Too late.’ Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy. Too late in realizing the mortal danger. Too late in preparedness. Too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance.” Given what is at stake in Ukraine and the free world, the U.S. and its allies need to commit to providing a decisive airpower advantage. That demands action at the speed of combat relevance, not officialdom.


  1. “As General Douglas MacArthur famously remarked: “The history of failure in war can almost always be summed up in two words: ‘Too late.’”

    I could add a few more reasons for military failure, but we’ll leave it at that.

  2. Send F16’s now and recruit international volunteers plus ground crew.
    Ukraine’s horror must not be prolonged one second more than necessary.

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