Ukraine to get F-16s (and Possibly Gripen!)

August 21, 2023

Well, time to issue a correction. A couple of weeks ago I made a video about a report in the Buenos Aires Times about how it looked like the Argentine Air Force was possibly going to receive Danish F-16s to revitalise their ailing capabilities. At the time I noted this was somewhat odd as Denmark had previously stated that they intended to supply these aircraft to Ukraine as military aid.

And that in fact seems to be what is going to occur. On the 20th of August came an announcement from President Zelensky of Ukraine that Denmark was going to transfer nineteen F-16s, while the Netherlands would give forty-two of their own retiring fleet, making for a total sixty-one of the aircraft being sent to equip the Ukrainian Air Force.

Credit: USAF

The significance of this is hard to overstate. The UAF has no doubt suffered heavily from the heavy fighting it has undergone since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, though naturally exact details are kept under tight security.

The Ukrainian’s have been loudly calling for modern Western aircraft to supplement the dwindling numbers of Soviet-era aircraft that they currently operate and which have been supplemented by similar aircraft from the stocks held by NATO nations over the last year. Indeed, the limitations of Ukrainian air power have been seen as a significant issue in both protecting their territory from increasing attacks by Russian drones and in holding up their offensive operations trying to reclaim land taken by Russia.

The decision to finally supply the F-16s, which has been wrangled over for months now, is therefore an extremely important step as it offers the potential to not just revitalise the Ukrainian air defence capabilities, but also their offensive ones.

The F-16s that are scheduled to be supplied are older models but have been subject to continuous upgrades and are extremely capable aircraft. They have the ability to use practically the whole gamut of advanced NATO standard munitions, including AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, which offer the prospect of the Russian Air Force getting a much harder time of it than they already are.

But more significant is that this represents a Rubicon moment, where Western nations effectively have a green light to supply aircraft to Ukraine. Up until now the United States, though gradually coming around to the idea of supplying modern jets to Ukraine, appears to have been essentially holding up the process. And with the F-16 this is an extremely important consideration as the US ultimately has final say on where and to whom these aircraft can be supplied.

Another factor of importance for the supply of F-16s is that there are a lot of them available. A number of NATO countries are currently replacing them in service and so these are available for transfer. On top of the 61 that appear to be authorised to be supplied are approximately another 120 or so similar aircraft held by Norway, Belgium and Denmark that may be sent in due course.

Additionally, the United States also has very large numbers of this type both in service and in storage for potential use, which means once F-16s are flying in Ukrainian colours, well, who supplied them is practically irrelevant politically.

So, yeah, it’s a big deal, as what we have here is the groundwork laid for rebuilding of the UAF as a far more formidable force.

And there is some more news regarding this issue. The day before the announcement that the F-16s were to be transferred President Zelensky of Ukraine announced that he had held talks in Sweden on the possibility of acquiring Saab Gripen fighters for the UAF. According to the issued statement Ukrainian pilots have been conducting testing with the Gripen for an undisclosed amount of time and now discussions on potential transfer of this type are taking place.

The Saab Gripen is also an extremely capable aircraft. The cornerstone of the Swedish and several other air forces, the Gripen is a thoroughly modern design that, once again, can use a range of modern precision munitions.

Credit: Saab

The issue with Gripen is the limited numbers available. The only potential supplier in reality is Sweden itself, who would have to draw aircraft from their own stocks for supply to Ukraine and then pay to replace them. After all, Sweden has their own security issues with Russia and drawing down their own strength to supply Ukraine would be a risk.

Considering the timing of the announcements of the supply of Gripen and F-16s, this has led to some speculation that the statements regarding Gripen were in fact an attempt to give the United States the final push to getting them to agreeing to allow F-16s to be supplied. But there is also another factor to be considered.

Even if F-16s are supplied by the winter, as seems to be being indicated in the various statements, continued supply may be at risk. Several candidates for the US Presidential election, scheduled for next year, have indicated that should they win they will cut off US aid to Ukraine. This that raises the prospect that the Ukrainian Air Force may find their supply of these fighters cut off if one of those candidates is elected.

Now, I am not going to be delving into the mire heap that is American politics; I get enough hate mail just from posting videos on obscure aircraft that only three other people have ever heard of, and we are dealing here with a lot of “if’s” and “maybe’s”.

But from a strategic point of view, it is a factor that the Ukrainians have consider in their decision making. This war is liable to continue slugging on for a while yet, and long-term logistic and force maintenance are a critical factor. So, the Ukrainians might be keen to ensure they have access to modern aircraft – even if only in limited numbers – from multiple sources in the event of a change in US policy position.

In fact, the United States could block transfer or sale of Gripen’s to Ukraine as the aircraft uses several American components, but I suspect that would likely be ignored if the aircraft being sent were not actually a US design.

However, it will be interesting if the Ukrainian’s continue to follow up on earlier French suggestions on the transfer of Mirage 2000 jets to the UAF because of this potential problem. French aircraft have long been favoured by those who consider the United States to be an unreliable security partner and, though currently the US is the principal supporter of the Ukrainian struggle, perhaps concerns on that remaining so will see French jets over the Ukraine at the earliest opportunity.

And of course, we still have the ever-running train wreck that is the Argentine attempts to secure new fighters for their Air Force; a subject like Ukraine, that is going to be discussed for the foreseeable future by the look of it.


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