Considering the possibility that Kiev might ultimately obtain F-16s, it’s timely to weigh the merits of each side’s assessment in order to get a better idea of whether the Kremlin’s or the Pentagon’s will more closely reflect reality in that scenario.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko recently warned that the West’s possible shipment of F-16s to Kiev “is fraught with colossal risks” for that de facto New Cold War bloc, shortly after which his boss Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described this scenario as “an unacceptable escalation.” The Kremlin’s assessment clashes with the Pentagon’s, whose Air Force chief Frank Kendall claimed last week that “it’s not going to be a dramatic game-changer…for their total military capabilities.”
Biden’s support at the G7 Summit for training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16s and some countries’ like the UK’s plans to assemble a so-called “jet coalition” for their Eastern European proxy suggest that these opposite predictions will be put to the test after some time unless a ceasefire is reached first. Considering this possibility, it’s timely to weigh the merits of each side’s assessment in order to get a better idea of whether the Kremlin’s or the Pentagon’s will more closely reflect reality in that scenario.
Sky News’ explainer that was published on Sunday provides a good starting point for answering this question. According to military analyst Sean Bell, Kiev will likely receive old F-16s that are “heavily dependent on spares” and urgently in need of being updated with modern equipment. “Anything less” than “Modern air-to-air missiles married to a modern F-16 radar”, which he said “would pose a credible threat”, “risks emboldening the Russian Air Force.”
Before reaching his conclusion, Bell also informed readers that “In addition to radar, modern fighters also need state-of-the-art electronic warfare, defensive aids, infrared sensors, link-16 datalinks, and a computer system to programme and deliver the latest generation of high-tech air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons”, not to mention “trained pilots and groundcrew, weapons, spares, ground planning facilities, intelligence, and a suite of supporting infrastructure are also required.”
Quite clearly, it’ll be an herculean task for the West to make Kiev’s possible F-16 fleet a formidable challenge for Russia’s much more modern one that’s already manned by very experienced pilots. This take therefore extends credence to Kendall’s claim that it won’t be a game-changer. Nevertheless, Kiev reportedly envisages arming the F-16s with Swedish-German Taurus missiles that could reach Moscow with their 500-kilometer maximum range, though it’s unclear whether they’ll receive them.
Even if they do, then this doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to break through Russia’s air defenses. Should they succeed in striking targets near or within that Great Power’s capital, however, then it would certainly be spun by them and their supporters as a soft power coup. This is especially the case if verified footage emerges of an F-16 taking down a much more modern Russian jet. Both scenarios are unlikely, though, but their political significance partially explains why Kiev wants these planes so badly.
The other motivation behind obtaining these systems is for them “to strike the command centers and logistical networks of the Russian forces” in the former Ukrainian regions that Kiev claims as its own according to their Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat. While it’s obviously better for them to have more capabilities available than less, this use of the F-16s also wouldn’t be a game-changer and could even be counterproductive for the West’s soft power if Russia ends up shooting them down.
On the other hand, there are still plausible reasons for why the Kremlin would regard the West’s transfer of these planes to Ukraine as an unacceptable escalation. For starters, it represents yet another unilateral escalation by NATO in its proxy war with Russia, which could prompt Moscow to respond in ways that risks bringing the conflict closer to nuclear brinksmanship. The Kremlin might feel forced to react more seriously than usual in order to “save face” after yet another of its “red lines” was crossed.
The US is basically taunting Russia to do so at this point per an interpretation of Politico’s recent report. According to their unnamed administration sources, “The Pentagon, including top military officials, have long worried about the potential of escalation on the Russian side should the West take such a step as giving Ukraine F-16 capabilities. But Blinken had observed over the past year that Russia rarely escalates beyond rhetoric, even as the West has introduced more military offerings into Ukraine.”
Russian policymakers might therefore calculate that they finally have to do something meaningful to signal their displeasure if this latest “red line” is crossed, particularly if Moscow gets bombed by the F-16s and/or verified footage emerges of them taking down one of their jets. The odds of that happening would spike if a few of those planes are secretly modernized. In that case, Russia risks becoming a laughingstock if nothing serious is done in response, after which even more escalations might follow.
Other than possibly being placed in this particular dilemma, there’s another reason why the Kremlin considers the West’s potential transfer of these planes to Ukraine to be unacceptable, and that’s the chance that they could be based in NATO states and/or manned by “volunteer pilots” from NATO. The first scenario would already be provocative enough, but could prompt an unprecedented crisis if those NATO-based F-16s are used to bomb Russia’s pre-2014 territory.
As for the second, it would almost certainly entail the most modern F-16s being used since NATO likely wouldn’t risk its “volunteer pilots’” lives by having them fly outdated deathtraps. Furthermore, these planes would then probably be based in a NATO state for additional protection even if they’re only used to hit targets over the airspace or in the territory that Kiev claims as its own. As with the first scenario, that would already be a major provocation, let alone if they’re used to bomb Russia’s pre-2014 territory.
To be absolutely clear, there’s nothing credible in the public domain to suggest that these last two worst-case scenarios are being contemplated, but it’s likely the Kremlin’s concerns that the West’s possible transfer of F-16s to Ukraine could lead to those escalations that it considers this unacceptable. Russian policymakers probably expect that any reluctance to meaningfully signal their displeasure at the crossing of that latest “red line” would embolden the West to eventually think about doing precisely that in time.
They obviously don’t want to be placed in the dilemma whereby they might feel damned if they express such a signal by escalating in response for deterrence purposes and equally damned if they decline. In either case, the consequences are unpredictable and could result in everything spiraling out of control, hence why they prefer for Kiev not to obtain any F-16s in the first place. Nobody can therefore say with certainty what will ultimately happen, which is why many observers are becoming worried about this.