99 F-16s for Ukraine

Although the battlefield is not yet prepared to host them, the size of the shipment is good.

Shankar Narayan
7 min readApr 18, 2024

What a difference can morale and confidence could make?

I started working on this story almost a month ago. It was completed then as it is now. I updated a few line items, but the core part of it remains the same. For whatever reason, I had no interest whatsoever in hitting that publish button. I mean, what is the freaking point in talking about the F16s when Ukraine is running around with empty shells and exhausted missiles?

I just couldn’t connect with the story. So, I kept delaying it again and again.

A whole lot of things have changed in the last five days. The United States is gearing up to clear the aid package for Ukraine and Israel. Europe is rallying to send air defense systems and missiles to Ukraine. Now would be the perfect time for us to revisit the question: “Where in the heck are the F16s?”

On July 11, 2023, during the Vilnius Summit, an international coalition to offer F-16 training for Ukraine was created. That was the time when the big guys were refusing to send fighter jets to Ukraine. So, in order to avoid annoying them, the smaller guys named it the F-16 training coalition. A baby step towards delivering the F-16s to Ukraine.

At the start, it only had 11 countries. Greece added itself to the list on August 22nd. Two days later, the United States eased itself into the list.

Available units are approximate numbers derived from public sources. Canada has only F18s.

The total number of jets pledged to Ukraine currently stands at 99. This number is not set in stone; it may fluctuate. There are various factors at play behind the scenes. People talk, officials talk, but when they speak to the media, they may not provide the perfect answer. As the situation evolves, requirements change, and this will inevitably have an impact.

As you can see from the table above, there are 1,746 F-16s currently operational in Europe and the United States. Excluding the United States from the list, we are left with 546 units. Unlike the Patriot units, quantity will not be an issue with F-16s.

Allies are reluctant to provide Ukraine with Patriot systems due to concerns for their own safety. The Patriot system is considered the best in the world, but it comes with a hefty price tag of one billion dollars. On top of this, acquiring a replacement system would take considerable time. Apart from Germany, most nations possess only a handful of systems, leading them to hug their Patriots as tightly as they possibly can.

The situation is not the same with F-16s. There are closer to 500 units in Europe. It costs around $30 million. The current production capacity is four units a month, and there is a backlog. However, this capacity will allow the United States to move things around if needed. I don’t see this as a problem mainly because of the number of units that are in possession around the world.

  • 100 units out of 1750 is 5% (F-16s pledged for Ukraine compared to available units). There are actually way more than 1,750 units around the world.
  • 10 units out of 100 is 10%. (Patriot units Ukraine needs compared to available units)

The allies can easily provide 100 F-16s to Ukraine. It will not cause them the same level of pain as they experience when sending the Patriot air-defense systems.

Will 100 fighter jets be enough?

I’ve repeatedly voiced my concerns about shortages in artillery shells, air-defense missiles, manpower, and more. You name it, I’ve probably said it’s not enough. However, that is not my stance on F-16s. In my view, having 100 units is more than sufficient for 2024.

More is not going to be very helpful.

“More F-16s for Ukraine means it will need more spare parts, more training, more munitions, and more infrastructure — all of which require additional time and precious resources. Infrastructure for complex weapons systems takes multiple years to develop and cohere, which would be difficult for any command to establish amid an ongoing conflict, but will be particularly challenging for a country fighting a large-scale war against one of the world’s largest militaries,” said Colonel Kristen D. Thompson, U.S. Air Force.

Tom Richter, a former U.S. Marine pilot, calls the F16 “a sensitive beast.”

“If you ever walked up and put your hands on a MiG-29 at an air show and then walked right over and put your hands on an F-16, you can feel just from the outside how the F-16 is highly engineered. It is a prima donna, and it is very sensitive and needs high maintenance,” said Richter, who used the call sign T-Bone. The Soviet planes are more “rough and tumble” and can fly off poorly maintained airfields, and need less maintenance.

There is no comparison between the F-16s and the old Soviet-era jets Ukraine is currently flying. The F-16 has only one engine compared to the Soviet jets, which have dual engines. “MiG-29s, and many Soviet-era fighter designs, were meant to operate in poor runway conditions, and have shutters that drop down over their air intakes to prevent the engines from sucking in debris when the plane is on the ground. The F-16’s underslung intake does not have such protections, and it is not meant to operate in austere conditions”.

This makes it nearly impossible for Ukraine to employ its irregular and distributed strategy to hide the warplanes. I believe Ukraine hides its Soviet-era jets from the Russians by taking off from one location, landing at another, and quickly concealing them. They most likely have a network of landing strips, and only they are aware of the jets’ whereabouts.

They will try to employ the same strategy with the F-16s, but the necessity to keep the runway in pristine condition for operating the F-16s will not make it easy for them to conceal those landing strips.

Once the jets arrive, they will be an “absolute magnet for Russian air defenses and Russian aircraft,” said Frank Ledwidge, senior lecturer in Law and War Studies at Portsmouth University in the U.K. and a former British military intelligence officer.

More jets will make it even harder for Ukraine to conceal them.

They need a lot of runways and a small number of jets. That is where they need to start

“For every F-16 pilot, there is a significant maintenance and logistics “tail” of support personnel that accompanies each aircraft to keep it airworthy. A typical package of twelve aircraft needs close to 250 maintainers to remain viable. These include mechanics and airframe specialists, crew chiefs, munitions loaders, and aircrew life support. To create the targeting and mission packages, a robust team of intelligence analysts and targeting experts is required to ensure operational success.

Meanwhile, onsite emergency personnel, including firefighters and medics, are needed to ensure safe ground operations. Ukraine will also need to consider stationing formidable surface to air missile defenses near its F-16 operating locations. For symbolic and operational reasons, Russia will likely be interested in attacking any F-16 that is parked on the ground for an extended period of time, ” Colonel Kristen D. Thompson, U.S. Air Force wrote for CFR.

100 jets will require 2,000 maintainers. The training program will be intense, and it will take a very long time to train them all. Once again, it makes sense to start small and then gradually increase the numbers.

If anything, the Russians are fully aware of the impact air power can have on this battlefield. Their victory in Avdiivka occurred only after they gained fire control of the sector through their air force. At one point, they were dropping more than 50 glide bombs over Ukrainian defenders in Avdiivka. They are repeating the same strategy in Chasiv Yar.

The Kremlin will be desperate to neutralize the fighter jets as soon as they arrive in Ukraine. There is only one way to counter that threat. Ukraine needs to significantly improve its air defense network. You cannot scale your air defense coverage from 50 points to 150 in one week. It takes time. Ukraine is urging Europe to send seven Patriot systems. I don’t know how many will reach or when.

This is one more reason why I believe Ukraine needs to gradually increase the number of F-16s on the battlefield.

The last item on the list is munitions and spare parts that Ukraine will need to keep the fleet running. Ukraine must make sure that they have a steady monthly supply of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. France and the United States can take care of that requirement, with additional assistance offered by smaller nations in the fighter jet coalition.

There are many people who believe Ukraine should get whatever jets they can lay their hands on. I disagree. They are better off sticking to a singular platform. It must be the F-16s. They need to start small. The size of the fleet must increase in lockstep with the strength of their air defense coverage.

Ukraine is better off sticking to a single type of jet: the F-16. If they start acquiring Mirages, Gripens, or any other type, managing the various logistical tails for each of these types will weaken them and leave them vulnerable to Russian attacks.


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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.