Will F-16 fighter jets tip war in Ukraine's favor?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sit in a F-16 fighter jet in the hangar of the Skrydstrup Airbase in Vojens, northern Denmark on Aug 20, 2023. [AFP]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described the decision by the Netherlands and Denmark to supply his country with F-16 fighter jets as "historic and inspiring."

The Western allies will supply dozens of the U.S.-made jets in the coming months, after Washington gave its approval.

F-16 jets

Zelenskyy visited the Dutch city of Eindhoven on Sunday to meet Prime Minister Mark Rutte, before visiting Copenhagen on Monday. At an airfield outside the Danish capital, Zelenskyy climbed into the cockpit of an F-16, alongside Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

Zelenskyy later addressed the Danish parliament. "We're here to say thank you, personally. Thank all of you for helping us in our fight, difficult fight for freedom. For helping us in this war which Russia brought to our land. And which it wants, so much, still wants to throw into homes of other nations," Zelenskyy told Danish lawmakers.

Outside, thousands of people had gathered to show their support, as the Ukrainian president repeated his message of gratitude. "I thank you and the whole of Denmark, all the weapons you are giving to protect freedom - and for the F-16s we agreed on. Thank you so much," he told the crowd.

News reports cite Russia's ambassador to Denmark, Vladimir Barbin, as saying the transfer of the jets will lead to the conflict's escalation.


Denmark plans to provide 19 F-16s, with the training of Ukrainian pilots already under way. It's hoped the first jets will arrive by the end of the year.

The Netherlands said it had 42 F-16s available, although a final number had yet to be agreed upon. Both allies are upgrading their fleets to more modern fifth-generation fighter jets.

The invading Russian forces currently enjoy vast air superiority, although Ukraine's air defenses, bolstered by modern Western systems, have proven effective.


Ukraine's existing air force fleet is made up of aging Soviet-era aircraft. The F-16s will offer far greater firepower, helping to defend against Russian jets, missiles and drones, said defense analyst Patrick Bury, of Britain's University of Bath.

"It can go toe to toe with (Russian) MiGs and would have a good chance against them. So, you're talking about trying to establish, first of all, some sort of local air superiority, which the Ukrainians just don't have at the moment. If you look at their flying ops, they're flying one to two aircraft at really low level(s), trying to avoid the very formidable Russian air defenses and the Russian air force," Bury told VOA.

The F-16 also offers Ukraine the ability to safely strike targets hundreds of kilometers away, deep in Russian-controlled territory. That's vital if any ground offensive is to succeed, Bury added.

"To get any momentum on the ground, really in the old sort of blitzkrieg sense, you need to have that ground attack capability from the air - so air-to-surface attack capability. And the F-16 can do that as well. And finally - and a really important role in this as well - is the F-16 is pretty good at doing suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses," Bury told VOA.

Western hesitation

Ukraine has been asking for F-16s since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, but Western allies held off, fearing an escalation of the war.

It will take months for Ukrainian pilots to be trained. The delay could prove costly.

"I still think it's coming too late to be honest with you. Politics is moving. We'll see what happens. Whether Ukraine can come round and have these F-16s ready - enough of them, trained up and ready to go, to basically go for version two of a summer offensive next summer - if the political appetite and the fiscal appetite is there for that, we'll see," Bury said.

Ukrainian reaction

On the streets of Kyiv, Ukrainian citizens welcomed the Dutch and Danish decisions to supply the jets.

"Finally! Thank God, I think every Ukrainian was waiting for it for a long time," said Larysa Shymko, who is originally from the town of Skadovsk in the Russian occupied territories. "I strongly believe and hope that this decision will help our country to achieve the long-awaited victory," Shymko told The Associated Press.

Lawyer Yurii Lymar urged the West to act more swiftly. "It is obvious that every Ukrainian feels that Europe and the entire world could approve such decisions a little faster, because every day in this great war means lots of Ukrainian people dying," he told the AP.

For now, Ukraine's summer ground offensive grinds on slowly, with minimal air support. Analysts say the West's decision to supply F-16s aims to bolster Ukraine's longer-term capabilities to fend off Russian aggression.

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