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The Long-Term Significance of Sending F-16s to Ukraine
Over time, Ukraine will emerge as one of the best-trained, best-equipped, and largest militaries in democratic Europe.
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As my readers know by now, in response to Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, I have strongly advocated for providing Ukraine with more and better weapons, and as fast as possible. As I wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post over a year ago, on March 16, 2022:
“More Western military assistance, especially weapons that can shoot down Russian airplanes and rockets or destroy artillery, is immediately needed for ending the war… More fighter jets, more surface-to-air missile systems, and more counter-fire weapons against long-range artillery are needed immediately.”
Regarding F-16s, I wrote the following in Foreign Affairs in January 2023:
“Ukrainian pilots also should begin training to fly F-16 fighter jets. Eventually, either in later stages of this war or for enhanced deterrence after the war, Ukraine’s air force will need to switch from Soviet- or Russian-made planes to U.S. fighter aircraft.”
The sooner Ukraine obtained weapons needed to defeat Russian invading forces, as I argued from the very start of the war, the faster the war would end. Negotiations for Putin will be off the table for as long as he has the money and people to keep up the fight. He will sit down to talk only when he feels he is losing.
Last week, President Biden, agreed to allow Ukrainians to train on F-16s, a first step towards allowing NATO allies to send F-16s to Ukraine. Hopefully, the United States will eventually do the same. This decision was long overdue. But still, these are very welcome news. Obviously, these American-made fighter jets will not arrive in time to be used in Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive. Ukrainians will have to launch their military operation without significant airpower – a major disadvantage that could have been remedied by an earlier provision of F-16s.
However, Biden’s decision on F-16s has long-term strategic significance. It credibly demonstrates that the United States and other NATO Allies are committed to modernizing Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the long run. Across every major weapons platform, Ukraine is now moving away from its Soviet-era systems, and instead adopting American and NATO-made weapons. The war has accelerated this transition, which will now continue for years and decades until Ukraine’s Armed Forces become one of the best-armed in Europe.
Instead of relying on Soviet/Russian-made MiG29s, Ukraine’s Air Force will over time fully transition to F-16s and maybe other NATO-made fighter jets. The Western world should also allow Ukraine now to obtain and later buy advanced drones, such as the U.S. Gray Eagle and Reaper models, to enhance its defense capabilities. Instead of Soviet/Russian-made T-64 tanks, Ukraine’s Armored Brigades will eventually only operate on Abrams and Leopard tanks, as well as other U.S. and NATO-made armored vehicles, including American M2 Bradleys and Strykers, French AMX-10 RCs, and German Marders. Regarding artillery and long-range fires, Ukraine down the line will abandon all its Soviet-era hardware and just use American-made howitzers, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), British Storm Shadow cruise missiles, and once Biden gives the green light, the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). Instead of S-300 air defense systems, Ukraine will deploy only Patriots and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) as well as French Crotale systems. Ukraine should also seek to add another layer of air defense by acquiring and deploying an even longer-range Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and maybe even the SM-3 Block 1B interceptors, currently based in Romania and Poland. And obviously, Ukraine will need to acquire NATO-made munitions for all these systems.
Completing this transition from Soviet to NATO weapons will take Ukraine years if not decades. But this process has already started and will never be reversed. Adopting these systems will integrate Ukraine more deeply into NATO and accelerate its decoupling from Russia. Once the war is over, Ukraine’s sustained transition to NATO weaponry will also create permissive conditions for joint training with NATO armies. And once the war is over, Ukraine needs to be armed to the teeth to deter any future attack from Russia. Adopting these NATO weapons platforms now will reach the necessary thresholds for successful deterrence much faster.
As first a NATO partner and later a NATO member, Ukraine will eventually emerge from this horrible war as one the best-trained, best-armed, and largest armies in democratic Europe – a vital fighting force for deterring Russian attacks of NATO allies with smaller armies. Eventually, maybe Ukraine could sign joint-production agreements with NATO arms manufacturers and become a key component of a unified military-industrial base for all of Europe. Ukraine after all played the same role for the Soviet Union. Along the way, Ukraine will evolve from a recipient of military aid to a provider of weapons and munitions to others. Once recovered from the war, Kyiv will buy American and NATO-made systems – a win-win for all, except Russia.
Last year, in his address on February 21, 2022, Putin explained that “demilitarization” was one of his key objectives for invading Ukraine. His illegal, unprovoked, barbaric war has produced the exact opposite.