There is the threat of a major Russian offensive in the coming weeks as the Russian army continues to try and push into Ukraine. A few days ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has visited the UK to ask for a large donation of aircraft to help the Ukrainian war effort.
Donations from other countries has been a vital part of sustaining the Ukrainian war effort. The US and many other NATO members have given missile systems, tanks, and many other devices and weapons to stall or destroy the Russian offensive.
President Zelensky has not been a stranger to asking other countries for help. He has appeared in the UK’s Parliament and the US’s Congress. These visits tend to reap large rewards in terms of monetary packages and equipment, but why are warplanes slightly different?
For most the war, the front has been changed by maneuvers that rely on both air superiority and air defense. The combination of being able to support troops on the ground, monitor the movements and installations of the enemy, and fly over enemy territory to carry out strikes, are all things that can change who is winning a war.
With Ukraine’s recent donation of tanks, the new focus is the reception of aircraft. Speculation on the aircraft is difficult because different countries use different models. This creates a few different issues for Ukraine. First, if the aircraft is an unfamiliar model, there is a likelihood that pilots will be forced to receive training or that they will experience reduced efficiency due to unfamiliarity with the machinery.
Right now, both sides are trying to minimize risking their already diminished air force. The Russian’s do not often carryout strikes far from the front lines and the Ukrainians use theirs for mostly reconnaissance and defense. A large donation from any country would likely return some offensive capability to the Ukrainian’s, especially as Spring is approaching and plans for an offensive will spur both sides into action.
One of the most sought after aircraft for the Ukrainians is the American F-16. Although President Joe Biden has said “no” for now, it is a good case study in understanding the position of other NATO allies.
The issue that comes with F-16s (and other planes) is that the US controls the re-export of them from their allies. For example, Poland cannot donate them without US permission. That is only the beginning, with an offensive only a few weeks away, there is very little time to get them to the frontlines to be operational before the offensives begin. Finally, if the planes were agreed upon and delivered, they would require a constant flow of trained mechanics, parts, and other vital equipment.
The US’s F-16 would produce a huge offensive capability for the Ukrainian’s, it would outmatch many of the Russian aircraft currently being used. That is precisely the problem for the US and its allies as they want to avoid anything that could be considered an escalation. F-16’s would carry the ability to strike deeper into Russian territory and outmatch some of the air defense systems that are currently in-place, but they also force countries to begin a stream of parts and mechanics which are already incredibly expensive without being at war.
The UK has deferred the decision by promising to train pilots, but not yet giving up any warplanes. Zelensky may receive a little bit of leeway with France as they produce their own fighters, but even the French made the reservation that the jets should not be used for strikes deep into Russian territory.
The war is always changing, and different measures are taken at different times. The likelihood of Ukraine receiving F-16s right now is incredibly low, but when the Eastern European soil thaws, and the Spring offensives begin, there may be a change in pace depending on each sides capability.