How F-16 fighter jets may be vital to help Ukraine beat Russian summer offensive

Ukrainian forces are eagerly anticipating the arrival of F-16 fighter jets to help them beat back Russia in its expected summer offensive as Moscow continues to make gains in the east.

A coalition of Nato allies – Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway – have agreed to donate approximately 45 F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force.

The aircraft could arrive as early as June, according to the Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, although the first delivery is expected to include only about six planes, reports suggest.

Experts say Western-provided F-16s will give Kyiv’s flock of ageing Soviet-era warplanes a major upgrade, allowing Ukraine to reassert dominance in the skies, while freeing up other weaponry that can also strike inside Russian territory.

Defence analyst and historian Peter Caddick-Adams told i: “The fact the F-16s will arrive soon is a great morale boost. This is a great upgrade from managing the Soviet-type aircraft. Ukraine have already lost some aircraft and skilled pilots, so this will help a lot.

“The Ukrainians have had more success in operating and destroying Russia in the air, and they are ramping up and striking targets in Russia, forcing Russians to withdraw its air defences back over the border into its own territory.”

Russia’s air defence systems include the S-300 and the highly advanced S-400, and a fleet of Su-25s.

Ukraine has lost at least 86 aircraft since the war began, while Russia is believed to have lost more than 100, according to the open-source intelligence site Oryx.

Ukraine has lost at least 86 aircraft since the war began, while Russia is believed to have lost more than 100, according to the open-source intelligence site Oryx (Photo: Bart Biesemans/Reuters)

As part of the deal, instructors are training Ukrainian pilots in Romania and Denmark on how to fly and maintain F-16s.

“They have a new air crew trained to fly them by the West – air frames are irrelevant unless they can be flown by skilled fighter pilots, so the training from Europe will allow Ukraine to sustain an air campaign,” Mr Caddick-Adams said.

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has claimed that Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian Su-25 fighter-bomber jet over the Donetsk region over the weekend. Russia is estimated to have had between 70 and 80 serviceable Su-25s before invading Ukraine more and than two years ago. Kyiv claims to have shot down around six of these.

Russian Su-25 jet aircraft release smoke in the colours of the Russian state flag during a flypast rehearsal ahead of a parade on Victory Day, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia, May 5, 2024. REUTERS/Yulia Morozova
Russia is estimated to have had between 70 and 80 serviceable Su-25s before invading Ukraine more and than two years ago (Photo: Yulia Morozova/Reuters)

Justin Crump, a former British Army officer who runs risk intelligence company Sibylline, told i: “[F-16s] will also be used to shoot down drones and air defence systems, so they will be used defensively, freeing up other aircraft that are good for shooting down cruise missiles and drones.

“But F-16s will still be used to intercept drones and cruise missiles in the west – or they could go after Russian aircraft which is quite hard given their long-range air-to-air missiles, so it is less likely they will do bombing runs behind enemy lines.

“F-16s are a step forward but can’t see missions radically change. They will be a boost for Ukraine – they are more complex and better systems with wider variety of weapons that can be used.

“They will most likely be used alongside the ATACMS [long-range ballistic missile system], combining different systems to maximise impact and used in more targeted strikes in the Donbas and Crimea.”

TOPSHOT - A local resident walks past apartment buildings destroyed by air bomb in the village of Ocheretyne not far from Avdiivka town in the Donetsk region, on April 15, 2024, amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)
A resident walks past destroyed apartment buildings in the village of Ocheretyne near Avdiivka in the Donetsk region (Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)

Ukraine first requested F-16s from its allies in the early weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion, but the US did not sign off on a third-party transfer from its allies to Kyiv until last summer. As part of the $61bn US aid package, more Western supplies of weapons are starting to arrive in Ukraine, including ATACMS.

However, along the front line, reports suggest that Russian forces have made further advances over the past few days, taking several more villages in Donetsk, including Ocheretyne, northwest of the former Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka, which fell in February.

Experts believe steady advances may continue until Ukraine’s weapons are running at full capacity.

Mr Crump said: “I think the Russians carry on gaining ground over summer as there are still shortages, so they [the Ukrainians] are not in a great position. But when the weapons arrive, they will make the Russians pay for it. It is costing a lot for Russia to keep moving forward.

“The F-16s will prove useful, but they will want to preserve their air force because the number of F-16s Ukraine will initially receive is quite low.

“They will have to use their F-16s intelligently and get used to using them. They will have to work hard to find the right missions as Russian systems are designed to deal with this sort of aircraft.”