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The Western world is at a crossroads as it enters into a new era of military cooperation. NATO members Denmark and the Netherlands have been pushing for the training of Ukrainian pilots and support staff, as well as undertaking maintenance of aircraft to enable Ukraine to obtain F-16 Viper fighters for its conflict with Russia. According to regulations on the exportation of military equipment, any F-16 Vipers sent to other nations are subject to US export controls. To transfer them to a third party, such as Ukraine, additional approval from US authorities must be granted. Eleven Western countries formed a coalition in July to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom. However, there are whispers that this move may have an ulterior motive, with NATO countries seeking to replenish their own outdated technology with newer models by donating the phased-out F-16s. Now, with the U.S. approving the shipment of F-16s to Ukraine from Netherlands and Denmark, the question is whether this move will ultimately have any meaningful impact on the war in Eastern Europe, or if it will only escalate the conflict to strain more Western resources and escalate yet another limited proxy conflict designed to weaken America’s arch-nemesis—Russia.

Too Little, Too Late?

Though it may be seen as a significant gain for Kyiv, the F-16s may not be enough to turn the tide of the 18-month-long conflict. With widespread speculation about the true motivations behind the move, it remains to be seen whether this new development will be the solution to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, or if it’s a case of too little, too late. As Ukrainian forces launch a counteroffensive against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine with decades-old Soviet-era equipment, Ukrainian leadership claims their forces are vulnerable to devastating attacks from the skies. Despite a recent statement by General James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, that the F-16s may not be a game-changer for Ukraine, the Ukrainians themselves believe that these aircraft are key to gaining a combat edge. Furthermore, according to General Hecker, Ukraine’s current MiG-29s are actually capable aircraft. However, Hecker has stated that F-16s will be better suited to the Western-made weapons that Ukraine has received, particularly radar-hunting missiles that the US has been providing for the last year. Hecker went on to explain that the weapons being sent to Ukraine have to be modified to work with MiG-29s or SU-27s, whereas F-16s are already compatible. This compatibility will enhance Ukraine’s capabilities, but as Hecker points out, it won’t solve all the issues at hand as an aircraft alone will not be able to take down Russia’s sophisticated S-400 air-defense system. As multiple Western countries have already begun training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16s, there is hope that this latest move will finally provide the necessary support for Ukraine to move towards a pro-Western stance and be able to defend itself against Russian aggression. Nonetheless, many in the Western world remains wary, questioning whether the move is too little too late for Ukraine and questioning the motives behind the move.

Ulterior Motives

With the United States’ final approval for sending the F-16s to Ukraine, pilot training is the only hurdle before delivery. The decision has been welcomed by the Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra. While the coalition of 11 countries later in the month has begun training Ukrainian pilots for flying the fighter jets, the promise of F-16 donations could stem from the fact that NATO countries such as the Netherlands are currently phasing out their F-16s from their armed forces. Over the past few years, the Royal Netherlands Air Force has gradually been substituting its F-16A/Bs with modern F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. This shift has resulted in a surplus of previously-owned Dutch F-16s that could potentially be sent over to Ukraine. A significant factor behind this availability was the downsizing of an earlier planned sale to Draken, which is viewed as a US adversary air firm. Initially, the company was slated to purchase 12 of these airplanes, with the choice of acquiring 28 more. However, Draken later revised its scheme and will now only be obtaining six of these planes. So as the jets may not be of any great use in the current conflict, this new development could be interpreted as a strategic move by NATO countries to phase out old equipment and obtain more advanced weaponry from the United States. Denmark has also revealed plans to switch from the F-16 to the F-35 in the coming years. The government announced that it would initiate the replacement process in an expedited manner, removing the last of its Vipers from service by 2025. Currently, roughly 43 F-16AM/BMs are in operation, and portions of the fleet may potentially be sent over to Ukraine after they are phased out over the next 24 months. The Netherlands and Denmark could be using the conflict as an opportunity to phase out their old equipment as quickly as possible in favor of more advanced technology. This development could be seen as an opportunity to use Ukraine as a disposal ground for their old F-16s in exchange for newer, more advanced weaponry from the US.

What a Surprise: Defense Experts Support the Move

On the other hand, defense experts like Dave Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, argue that the US and its allies must provide Ukraine with the airpower it needs to effectively combat Russian forces. However, as with many of these op-eds, it is important to note that Lockheed-Martin, the maker of the F-16, and General Atomics, the maker of the MQ-9, both contribute to the non-profit Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, as mentioned at the bottom of his article. This raises concerns about Deptula’s motives, as he may be advocating for the use of these specific aircraft to benefit the companies that support his Institute. While providing airpower support to Ukraine has its merits, it is important to approach Deptula’s argument with a healthy level of skepticism. It is possible that his call for airpower support is not grounded solely in the importance of protecting Ukraine, but also influenced by the interests of the defense industry. Additionally, Lockheed-Martin has signaled its willingness to provide training to Ukraine, as it has done for 16 other countries, calling it part of an expansion strategy of its international supplier base. COO Frank St. John praised Ukrainian pilots’ ability to master the use of Lockheed’s weapons, hinting that the move could result in a base near Ukraine in the long term, “When these hostilities end, there will have to be a sustaining presence for training and maintenance and then the logical place would be for that to be in and around Ukraine.” However, the company’s interests in training Ukrainian pilots could be viewed as primarily self-serving and financial, as a successful training program could lead to increased demand for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in Eastern Europe, a region looking to move away from Soviet-era equipment, and allow for the F-16’s production to expand to four a month at Lockheed’s South Carolina site.

Russia’s Response to Western F-16s

Last month, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said that Western F-16 fighter jets sent to Ukraine would be seen as a “nuclear” threat because of their capability to carry atomic weapons. The comment followed Kyiv’s request for military aid from Western allies to help combat Russia’s offensive. Although the Netherlands and Denmark were leading a plan to train Ukrainian pilots on how to use the U.S.-made aircraft, Washington had yet to approve their supply at that time. Lavrov insisted that Russia could not ignore the planes’ potential to carry nuclear weapons, and that they would consider the presence of such systems in the Ukrainian armed forces as a threat from the West. According to some experts, Russia’s claims that F-16s delivered to Ukraine could carry nuclear weapons are unfounded fearmongering. Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, described Lavrov’s comments as “misinformation, perhaps even disinformation,” stating that Russia was using it to “create public concern or fearmongering about Western intentions.” White House spokesman John Kirby also refused to comment on the nuclear capabilities of the jets but reiterated President Biden’s stance against the escalation of war or any use of nuclear weapons.

Photo: Joseph Albergo

But a recent photo taken in May by aviation photographer Joseph Albergo at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, shows an F-16CM Block 42 jet, serial 88-0499, taking off with two inert B61 nuclear bombs under its wings. While the government is currently testing the newer B61-12, it seems that they are still carrying out activities with the older variants of the nuclear weapon. Stefano D’Urso reports that the use of Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E, the F-16C, and the F-35A is becoming more emphasized as part of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear triad. Although the aircraft in the rare photo may have been launching for a test mission over Tonopah Test Range, where most of the tests for US Air Force nuclear weapons are conducted, due to the sensitivity of the program, it is unknown if the mission performed by the aircraft is related to the integration activities. D’Urso reports that the integration of the B61-12 bomb on the F-15E Strike Eagle and the B-2A Spirit has been completed, while the integration on the F-35A is expected to be completed this year, but it still seems to be ongoing on the F-16C. Is Lavrov just grandstanding or does Russia have a legitimate concern?

Another Forever War?

The urgency regarding sending the jets is questionable as this appears to be part of a longterm strategy to modernize Ukraine’s military. As part of a national TV marathon, Yury Ihnat, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force, disclosed that the country’s Western allies will not even deliver F-16 fighter jets until springtime. Also concerning is General Hecker’s comment on Friday that this move has longterm implications beyond aiding the Ukrainians in the short-term, as he emphasized that “we won’t see the results of this project until four or five years later.” How soon is everyone expecting this war to end?

The conflict began in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Since then, Ukraine has been seeking to modernize its military with the help of its Western allies to better defend itself against Russia. So instead of seeing this delivery of F-16s as a move for the West to bolster Ukraine’s effort to defend themselves against Russia, it could also be seen as part of this broader effort to modernize Ukraine’s military capabilities. The urgency of this delivery is questionable because the conflict has been ongoing for years, and the timeline for its resolution is uncertain. As General Hecker pointed out, the long-term implications of this move are significant, suggesting that this delivery of F-16 fighter jets is likely part of a broader strategy to counter Russia’s military presence in the region.

The article “Ukraine: Prepare for a Longer War and Be Cautious in Pushing for Major Offensives” by think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the war between Ukraine and Russia is a war of attrition and that the United States should be wary of encouraging Ukraine to take new offensives since the war is likely to last a long time and consume both military and economic support from allies. The author further argues that providing years of military and economic aid is essential to assist Ukraine in achieving stability and that the US should consider the possible need for a protracted, seemingly unwinnable war.

Unforeseeable Consequences

The decision to send F-16s to Ukraine is a cause for concern, with potential consequences that could lead to catastrophic outcomes and only time will tell how the decision will play out. While Ukrainian forces have been pleading for modern weaponry to combat Russian aggression, there are whispers that the motives behind the move may not be entirely pure. Some experts fear that NATO countries may be seeking to replenish their outdated technology by donating phased-out F-16s—a move that could escalate the conflict and strain more Western resources. Furthermore, Russia has already labeled the F-16s as a “nuclear” threat, raising tensions between global superpowers to an alarming level. Despite experts calling out Russia for fearmongering, recent evidence suggests the United States is already testing F-16s to carry M-61 nuclear bombs, with hawkish think tanks seemingly pushing a protracted and seemingly unwinnable war, with disastrous consequences for the people of Ukraine and the world at large. Despite the hope that the F-16s may provide some support for Ukraine’s war effort, there are many reasons to be wary of the potential outcomes, and we must be cautious about the uncharted path that we are heading towards.

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