First F-16 fighter jets may appear in Ukraine in July

European countries promised Ukraine F-16 fighter jets as early as last year, but the first of them could enter service only in the summer. The problem is both the preparation of the airplanes themselves and the pace of training Ukrainian pilots, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

In total, EU countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium – have promised to hand over 45 F-16 fighters. Last summer, it was announced that the air base near the Romanian town of Fetesti would become a training center for Ukrainian pilots. But it is still unknown when this will happen, the NYT notes. For now, 12 pilots are being trained in Denmark, the UK and the US; after a 10-month training program that began in August 2023, they are expected to be ready to fly F-16s in mid-summer.

But by that time, Ukraine will have received only six fighters from Denmark. They are expected to be delivered in late spring, another 13 are due to arrive later in 2024 and 2025. The Netherlands, which has promised 24 machines, will provide them only when the Ukrainians are ready to operate them, said Jurrian Esser, a spokesman for the country’s Defense Ministry. Other countries have not yet decided on the delivery dates.

According to Danish officials, the training of Ukrainian pilots has been slower than planned because of language problems and their unfamiliarity with Western piloting techniques. They were not ready to fly until January.

The Danes are also training about 50 Ukrainian mechanics. The F-16s are so complex that it usually takes eight to 14 people to maintain a single aircraft. Western military officials say the fighter jet suppliers will have to escort the jets to Ukraine and stay there until enough people are trained to maintain the planes, which could take years.

The F-16s, meanwhile, are badly needed in Ukraine. This winter, Russian forces have become much more active in using combat aircraft for ground operations – even at the cost of heavy losses. This has primarily manifested itself in Avdiivka, where the number of airstrikes on Ukrainian positions has increased dramatically since mid-December, says Konrad Muzyka, director of Poland’s Rochan Consulting. To reduce the likelihood of casualties from Ukrainian air defense fire, Russian planes mainly use planning bombs. They can be launched without coming close to the front line, after which the bombs, containing up to half a ton of explosives, fly to the target. Maksim Zhorin from the 3rd separate assault brigade of the AFU, which defended Avdeevka, described the action of these bombs in his Telegram channel: “They completely destroy any position. After the arrival of just one, all buildings and structures simply turn into a pit”.

Since January, the Russian air force has regularly conducted more than 100 airstrikes a day, and in the four days before the fall of Avdiivka, nearly 160 airstrikes a day, Muzyka told The Washington Post, “[It] doesn’t cost the Russians anything. I can imagine they have a lot of these [planning] bombs, and they’re not going to run out quickly”.

F-16s armed with short- and medium-range missiles could counter Russian planes that launch them and make up for the lack of air defense assets, the NYT notes. “We will have new fighter jets in our skies this year, and we need to use them effectively to defend ourselves against Russian planning bombs, planes and missiles”, Volodymyr Zelensky said on March 1.

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