The official Twitter account for the Air Force of Ukraine publicly requested that NATO provide them with Western fighter jets like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle to aid them in their fight against Russia last week. According to the social media statement, Ukraine’s Air Force sees securing these fighters as essential to the defense of their nation, as they offer advanced systems that are on par or superior to those of the Russian Air Force.
According to Ukraine, their pilots could be trained and ready to fly these American jets into combat after just two or three weeks of training, but the truth is, flying the F-15 or F-16 into the fight takes a whole lot more than a moderately trained pilot. While it may not take long for these aviators to learn how to execute the fundamentals of flying in a new cockpit, combat is a test like few others. Even for American fighter pilots, who spend more time in their cockpits than pilots hailing from most other nations, survival in combat is never assured—let alone victory.
Unfortunately for Ukraine’s Air Force, this is one request that will very likely be denied.
Ukraine’s Air Force has fought courageously to keep the airspace over their embattled nation contested, not allowing Russia’s superior numbers or technology to take the skies from them, despite the odds. In the minds of many, this presents an opportunity for America’s high-performance 4th generation fighters to press the Russian military back toward its own borders, especially as Russian forces retreat and reposition to focus their efforts on Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine.
But the truth is, providing Ukraine with aircraft like the multi-purpose dynamo F-16 or the air superiority champ F-15 is a much bigger ask than many may realize. Not only would doing so be a massive undertaking, it likely wouldn’t offer a significant benefit over alternative—less risky—means of providing support.
Why does Ukraine want the F-15 and F-16 if they don’t fly them?
Despite growing increasingly friendly with the West in recent years, Ukraine’s stockpiles of military equipment remain largely comprised of Soviet-era tech, and that includes their Air Force. While the F-15 and F-16 have been flying since the 1970s, Ukraine has been operating two very different fighters: the Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29. This is why previous efforts to funnel fighters into Ukraine centered around Poland’s fleet of MiG-29s, which were seen as the easiest jets to transition Ukrainian pilots into.
If we’re going by the dates these aircraft entered service, Ukraine’s are technically newer designs than America’s Fighting Falcon and Eagle, with the MiG-29 first joining Russia’s operational fleets in 1982 and the Su-27 joining in 1985, versus the F-16’s 1978 and F-15’s 1976. In fact, these Soviet fighters were developed specifically to compete with the very American fighters Ukraine is requesting (just as the American jets in question were developed to out-compete the previous slew of Soviet fighters).
However, in the intervening decades, America and its allies have consistently updated their respective fleets of 4th generation fighter platforms, turning these relics of the Cold War into extremely capable modern-day aircraft. These jets may lack the ability to defeat or postpone radar detection like their newer stealth counterparts, but are none the less capable of operating in heavy combat environments with a high degree of success.
Russia’s aircraft have seen similar upgrades, giving them the clear advantage over Ukrainian aviators in this conflict. As such, Ukraine believes better Western fighters could give them the edge they need to dominate portions of Ukraine’s airspace.
They have good reason to suspect NATO fighters would do the trick. The F-16 was originally meant to be a lightweight air superiority fighter that has since demonstrated a great deal of value as a multi-role platform. The F-15 comes with an even more impressive reputation, and in fact, the Eagle is the most dominant air superiority fighter of its era (and perhaps others). With a reported combat record of 104 air victories and zero losses, there is not another fighter in the sky with the proven dogfighting chops of the F-15.
It takes at least 6 weeks to help trained American fighter pilots transition to the F-16 from another jet
Because Ukraine’s pilots are accustomed to the cockpits of Soviet-era fighters, it would take some real getting used to before they could effectively fly the F-16 or F-15 in combat. Ukraine claims they could make the transition in a matter of just two or three weeks, and while this seems extremely unlikely, it may be feasible given the nation’s difficult circumstances.
The Air Force actually already has a course designed to train existing fighter pilots to get behind the stick of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, and although these pilots are already accustomed to American fighters (as Ukrainian pilots would not be), the course still takes over six weeks. It’s possible that Ukrainian pilots could considerably condense this training course, but the chances that they would leave their crash course with a high degree of competence in their new aircraft seems unlikely.
But importantly, Ukraine has never operated these aircraft, so simply landing a few of these jets on a Ukrainian airstrip and tossing them the keys wouldn’t be enough to actually fly these jets in combat.
In fact, getting the aircraft into Ukraine would probably be the easy part.
The Air Force uses 25 maintainers for every one tactical aircraft
While all fighter jets are not created equal, there is one universal truth when it comes to operating them: it takes a ton of maintenance, even for aircraft like the F-16 that is renowned for being fairly inexpensive to operate. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, each F-16 requires about 16 hours of maintenance for every one hour spent flying.
It’s not a simple matter of having a few well-trained aircraft mechanics standing by to fix whatever ails a jet either—these are highly specialized pieces of equipment that require equally specialized training to maintain, let alone repair.
According to the U.S. Air Force’s 332d Air Expeditionary Wing, which operates both the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16C Fighting Falcon (among other aircraft), it takes a ratio of 25 maintainers to every one aircraft to keep their equipment in good working order. Of course, it could be done with fewer techs, but hard combat flying will undoubtedly require more maintenance and repairs than standard training flights might.
“It’s a constant double and triple checking,” said Senior Airman Griffin Langiano, maintenance crew chief. “There are so many moving parts, and if you don’t take your time it’s easy to miss something. We have to be 100 percent positive the plane is mission capable.”
This includes individuals conducting pre-flight, thru-flight, and post-flight safety checks (thru-flight means landing to re-arm before departing to continue a mission), as well as several more specialized groups called “back shops.”
These “back shop” maintainers specialize in more specific skill sets like maintaining or repairing weapons, guidance or propulsion systems. These jobs aren’t just essential to continuing air combat operations, they’re serious business. A single misplaced socket or poorly secured panel could result in a deadly crash.
“(Maintainers) have more responsibility than the majority of Airmen in the Air Force,” explained 1st Lt. Tate Ashton, 391st Fighter Squadron Sortie Generation Flight commander.
“Nobody else is held to a higher level of accountability than they are.”
Flying a fighter in combat means continuously pushing it to the limits of capability, and that means placing the airframe and other components under a huge amount of stress. Keeping these jets in flying condition takes a great deal of training. In order to become an Air Force tactical aircraft maintenance technician, Airmen must complete five advanced training courses at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. It takes each technician about 18 months to complete their job-specific training (on top of things like basic training) before they’re sent to their fleet units where they’ll continue to undergo on-the-job training until they’re fully proficient at their jobs.
These highly-trained maintenance techs then rely on specialized equipment and a massive logistical enterprise to keep them supplied with the materials they need to maintain their aircraft. This would require new infrastructure Ukraine doesn’t already have, from a place to put specialized equipment to a means to get regular shipments of Western parts to Ukrainian airstrips. Again, the goal would be to accomplish all of this without sending NATO troops into Ukraine.
Even if Ukraine could train its pilots to be competent in the F-16 and F-15 cockpits in just a matter of weeks (which, in itself, is extremely unlikely), they could never train enough airframe maintainers in that time. But let’s pretend they could do that too… then they’d still be facing another serious hurdle when it comes to ordnance.
The weapons fighter jets use need technicians (and logistics) too
You may not realize it if you’ve never spent much time on the flight line, but the weapons employed by fighter jets like America’s F-15 and F-16 are entirely different than those employed by the Soviet-era fighters in service for Ukraine. You can’t simply strap a Russian R-27 air-to-air missile to an F-16 and assume it’ll work when you pull the trigger. Modern air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and even many modern bombs are complex pieces of technology that require specific mounting hardware and specially trained technicians to be employed successfully.
Air Force Aircraft Armament Systems Specialists are tasked with arming America’s F-15 and F-16 fleets, and Ukraine would need similarly trained personnel on their own airstrips. This too requires a great deal of in-depth training (somewhere between 45 and 86 days’ worth, according to the Air Force).
Of course, Ukraine already has weapons technicians, so it may not take the same amount of time to spin them up regarding how to properly arm these aircraft, but it certainly isn’t something that could be done overnight.
But just as importantly, Ukraine would need a steady supply of munitions specific to each of these aircraft in order for them to provide any real value in the fight. Ukraine is already receiving weapons from external sources, so while some of this infrastructure work has already been done, it would require a significant effort to keep the flow of weapons and parts coming to Ukraine’s airstrips as Russian forces target the supply line in an effort to get these jets out of the fight.
Ukraine would have to take F-15s and F-16s into Russia to win the skies
As we’ve already discussed regarding the establishment of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine, advanced Russian air defense systems like the S-400 Triumpf have an operational range of around 250 miles. That means Ukrainian fighters would need to engage air defense systems inside Russia and potentially even Belarus in order to take control of their airspace (as multiple Ukrainian officials and pilots have championed as part of the request for these fighters). Otherwise, these air defense platforms could continue to shoot down Ukrainian jets that strayed too close to Russian territory.
But Russian air defense systems aren’t the biggest reason Ukraine would need to send its newly-gained F-15 and F-16 fleets into Russia—the biggest reason is that most Russian airstrikes are launched by aircraft that never leave Russian airspace.
Because Ukraine is located directly on Russia’s border, Russian forces have the ability to fly hundreds of sorties per day, launching missiles toward Ukrainian targets without ever actually flying across the border into Ukraine itself. Likewise, Russian integrated air defense systems rely heavily on airborne AWACS (airborne early warning and control systems) to extend their reach beyond the curvature of the earth. Ukraine’s F-15s and F-16s tasked with stopping the onslaught of Russian airstrikes would have no choice but to fly into Russia to engage fighters, bombers, and AWACS supporting these airstrike operations.
This poses a problem for NATO nations who would be supplying Ukraine with not just the aircraft, but the training, equipment, and munitions needed to operate them. Ukrainian F-15s and F-16s entering Russian airspace would undoubtedly look less like the West was providing defensive support and more like it was equipping Ukraine to take an offensive into Russia. This dramatically increases the likelihood of conflict expanding beyond Ukraine’s borders, as bringing the fight into Russia may prompt the Russian government to respond by engaging facilities and logistical supply lines that support Ukraine beyond its own borders, in places like Poland, in order to neutralize the threat posed by these American fighter aircraft.
Ukraine would lose a lot of fighters and the war would go on
There is no chance that NATO could provide Ukraine with enough F-15 or F-16 airframes to offset Russia’s massive numerical advantage in the region. All told, Russia has some 1,500 combat aircraft, making it the second-largest air force in the world. Ukraine began the war with fewer than 100, and now has closer to 50. Providing Ukraine with even dozens of western fighters (which is extremely unlikely) wouldn’t be enough to put them on even footing.
Instead, Ukrainian pilots in jets they only barely knew would fly into combat against Russian pilots who have trained in their own respective aircraft for years. Then they’d land their fighters on airstrips that would be targetted for repeated missile strikes, where techs and maintainers who only have a few weeks’ training on these platforms would have to turn them around and get them back into the fight extremely quickly, just to do it all again against the same overwhelming odds. This is a recipe for a lot of downed jets and a lot of dead, injured, or captured pilots.
Even if things went exceedingly well for Ukrainian aviators, as they have certainly demonstrated their ability to do a great deal with very little, this influx of fighters (along with all the required training, equipment, materials, and munitions) would not be enough to push Russian forces back into their own territory. Russia has more than 150,000 troops operating in Ukraine.
So while providing these jets could create a situation that sees the conflict grow beyond Ukraine’s borders, it’s unlikely that it, in itself, would be enough to end the fighting inside Ukraine either.
As many have pointed out, it’s significantly more cost-effective to control Ukrainian airspace using air defense systems than it is to provide fighter jets to do the same job. Air defense systems, of course, also require training and logistics, but by supplying Ukraine with systems they already operate like the Soviet S-300, operated by a small number of NATO nations, they could engage Russian aircraft and even cruise missiles without the need for additional training or equipment infrastructure.
These systems wouldn’t be capable of engaging Russian aircraft in Russia like fighter jets would… but that is indeed one of the reasons it’s a more tenable option. Of course, a limited supply of these air defense systems (as well as the munitions they fire) is a concern, just as it was with previous efforts to send Ukraine MiG-29s.
Ultimately, Ukraine may be asking for F-15 and F-16 fleets because they know having some fighters—even ones they may struggle to operate—is obviously better than none. But based on the fairly limited value these aircraft could provide in securing Ukraine’s airspace, even in engaging ground targets in airstrikes while heavily outnumbered and being targetted by Russian air defenses inside and outside of Ukraine, it simply isn’t the most effective or viable way to provide support.
Ukraine needs help—and a great deal of it at that—but the aim has to be protecting the people of Ukraine without expanding the conflict into a greater war. Providing Ukraine with F-15 or F-16 airframes would certainly help them, but not enough to be worth the cost or the risk when compared to other options.