What are F-16 fighter jets and could they be sent to help Ukraine?

World

Could F-16 fighter jets soon be screaming over Kharkiv or breaking the sound barrier as they tear through the skies above Zaporizhzhia?

It once seemed impossible, but now? Maybe not.

As the Western world looks to Germany for a decision over Leopard 2 tanks, it was from the Netherlands that a possibly more radical idea was floated: sending Western-made fighter planes to Kyiv for use by Ukrainian pilots.

The Dutch cabinet said will look into supplying F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine if the Kyiv government asks for them, the country’s media have reported.

During a parliamentary debate last week, foreign affairs minister Wopke Hoekstra said the cabinet would look at such a request with an “open mind”.

So what are F-16s and what could they be used for? And what other weapons could be donated to Ukraine in the coming months?

A F-16 aircraft releases flares during the "Noble Sword-14" NATO international tactical exercise at the land forces training centre in Oleszno, near Drawsko Pomorskie, northwest Poland September 9, 2014. About 1,700 soldiers from Croatia, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the U.S., Turkey, Hungary, Britain and Italy are participating in the three-week exercise. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND  - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
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A F-16 aircraft releases flares during a NATO exercise in Poland

F-16 Fighting Falcon

A highly manoeuvrable fighter jet, the F-16 is versatile and can reach speeds of more than 1,200mph.

It can locate targets in all weather conditions and detect low-flying aircraft in radar ground clutter, the US says.

In an air-to-surface role, the F-16 can fly more than 500 miles, deliver its payload with high accuracy, defend itself against enemy aircraft, and return to its starting point.

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Former senior intelligence and security officer Philip Ingram says Ukrainian soldiers face a training burden as the West pledges tanks

The Netherlands – a member of NATO – is one of a number of countries worldwide that flies F-16s as part of its air force.

“I think it’s likely that we’ll start to see more Western military aircraft being given to Ukraine – Ukrainians need it,” former intelligence officer Philip Ingram tells Sky News.

He said the difficulty is that pilots can’t just switch from flying one aircraft to another – especially at the intensity of live combat operations.

“But what we’re finding across the board with the Ukrainians coming in and learning to take over and operate Western equipment is they’re doing in weeks what it takes months for Western pilots to do,” Mr Ingram added.

Asked about what the impact of a squadron of F-16s piloted by Ukrainians would be, he said it would have a psychological effect on Russian forces.

“They’re up against a system that they know can outmatch them at any stage,” he said, arguing that it would push Russian air operations further back.

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A Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum multirole fighter jet of the Polish Air Force.
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Will Polish MiG-29 fighters be sent to Ukraine?

Mikoyan MiG-29

The Soviet-designed MiG-29 is already used by the Ukrainian air force and serves as a multi-role fighter plane.

The collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union mean a number of European countries have stocks of MiG-29s, including Poland.

In March last year, just weeks after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland offered to supply its entire fleet of MiG-29s to Kyiv in return for F-16s from the US.

At the time the Pentagon said the offer was not “tenable” and “raises serious concerns for the NATO alliance”.

However in the months since then Ukraine has mounted hugely successful counterattacks and many heavy weapons that were maybe once considered off the table – HIMARS and tanks, for example – have been donated to Kyiv.

A potential issue for the Polish MiG-29s, Mr Ingram says, is that they have been upgraded to run NATO communications systems that would potentially need to be removed to prevent them falling into Russian hands.

Asked about a possible timeline for F-16s, MiG-29s or other fixed-wing aircraft for Ukraine, Mr Ingram pointed to the next Ramstein air base meeting in mid-February which is expected to focus on aviation.

In this image provided by the U.S. Army, soldiers, from the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade out of Fort Bragg N.C., conduct live fire testing at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., on Dec. 14, 2021, of early versions of the Army Tactical Missile System. Ukrainian leaders are begging the U.S. and Western allies for air defense systems and longer-range weapons to keep up the momentum in their counteroffensive against Russia and fight back against Moscow...s intensified attacks. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says allies are committed to sending weapons ...as fast as we can physically get them there.... (John Hamilton/U.S. Army via AP)
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US Army soldiers test-fire a version of the ATACMS. Pic: AP/White Sands Missile Range

ATACMS long-range missiles

Ukraine has long been calling for more and longer-range missile systems as they continue to strike targets deep behind Russian lines.

The arrival of the HIMARS rocket system was arguably one of the biggest developments in the war and has undoubtedly played a huge role in underpinning Ukraine’s counteroffensives.

With a range of around 190 miles Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) would be a step up in range from the HIMARS being used in Ukraine, which has a range of around 50 miles.

On a visit to Kyiv last week with two other US senators, Richard Blumenthal urged the Biden administration to supply Ukraine with tanks, artillery, and ATACMS missile systems, as well as planes.

“We should not send American troops to Ukraine, but we should provide Ukraine with whatever we would give our troops if they were fighting on the ground,” Mr Blumenthal said.

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