How F-16s could change the war in Ukraine

While F-16 fighter jets are unlikely to deliver Ukrainian air superiority against Russian invaders, the aircraft will provide a powerful advantage to Kyiv’s forces.

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and Danish Prime Minister Frederiksen sit in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet at a Danish air base.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sit in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet during their visit to the Fighter Wing Skrydstrup air base of the Royal Danish Air Force in Vojens, Denmark, on Aug. 21, 2023. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • After two years of contested control of the skies, Russia may have gained limited air superiority
  • F-16s are no cure-all for Ukraine’s defense challenges, but will create a new threat vector for Russia
  • The fighter jets will increase Kyiv’s defense capabilities; the sooner they are delivered, the better

With the war in Ukraine now in its third year, the pitched battle this past winter between Russian and Ukrainian forces for the town of Avdiivka now appears notable for at least two reasons.

The first is that Ukraine’s loss of the town marks the latest in a series of high-profile military setbacks, including its counteroffensive; the second is that it appears that for the first time in the war, Russia has, at least for the moment, gained a degree of local air superiority.

This report will focus on the role command of the skies may play in the Ukraine conflict, especially with deliveries of Western F-16 Fighting Falcon jets expected to start in limited numbers this year.

What is air superiority?

In Western military doctrine, modern warfare has long consisted of three key domains: the ground, the sea (surface and subsurface) and the air. Now, cyber and space are also – rightly – included in that list.

While these domains are distinct, they are also deeply interconnected. This is the idea behind the concept of joint military operations and joint warfare: Success in the battlespace is best achieved through command of all, or as many as possible, of these domains.

“These aircraft will increase the versatility, firepower and responsiveness of the Ukrainian forces at a critical time in the conflict.”

Air superiority is, in its simplest sense, control of the skies, including the capability to address airborne threats such as aircraft, unmanned combat aerial-vehicles (UCAVs) and mobile and fixed air defenses. Support in this domain is what Kyiv has been seeking from its Western allies since the onset of the war.

According to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff:

The degree of [air] control can range from no control, to a parity (or neutral) situation wherein neither adversary can claim any level of control over the other, to local air superiority in a specific area, to air supremacy over the entire operational area. Control may vary over time.

As a fundamental element of modern warfare, air superiority has the potential to provide critical advantages in the battlespace for those forces that are able to contest for it and achieve it.

Does air superiority matter? In Ukraine?

One may reasonably expect that the response to both of those questions is a resounding “Yes.” But, in fact, the answer is more nuanced. While there are seemingly a number of significant military advantages to air superiority if it can be achieved, in reality, the strategic value of air superiority – which is costly to provide and complex to maintain – largely depends on the context and goals of the conflict.

When air superiority is a given, for example if the opponent does not have any air assets or air defenses, the situation is positive for the side with air supremacy. But even then, it may not be a determinant of the conflict’s outcome.

Take the example of the U.S. and coalition allies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both conflicts, the coalition forces had clear air superiority over their opponents, yet while that enviable state of play was important, it arguably did not prove decisive in the end due to the nature of the warfare.

The reason is that those two wars were fought against terrorist networks and violent extremist insurgencies, which can operate differently than conventional forces. Insurgents often use hit-and-run and terrorist tactics conducted by small, paramilitary units or terror cells, especially in urban environments or other favorable terrains. This situation makes air power a challenging tool to use efficiently and effectively if the employing force is concerned about issues such as collateral damage, particularly civilian casualties.

The allies’ ground and maritime military campaigns became less costly, more efficient, more effective – and arguably more decisive – because of their air superiority.

On the other hand, consider World War II, which was primarily a conventional war between large militaries, with a plethora of air targets on the battlefield, from storage and supply depots to mechanized units – which is in some ways similar to the disposition of Russian forces occupying Ukraine today. Military-industrial targets far behind enemy lines also offered objectives of a strategic nature. 

The allies’ eventual destruction of enemy military targets from above – while providing air cover to advancing allied ground and naval forces – was a critical factor in the conflict’s outcome. The allies’ ground and maritime military campaigns became less costly, more efficient, more effective – and arguably more decisive – because of their air superiority.

The same could be argued for the Ukraine war, in which traditional army units and related infrastructure are found across the theater of operations. The achievement of air superiority could be decisive for either side in achieving their long-term political and military objectives.

Allies providing Ukraine with the Patriot and similar air defense systems have already significantly slowed the Russian campaign – instead of taking Kyiv in three days as Russia seemed to have planned, Moscow’s invasion is now in its third costly year. Additionally, Ukrainians have been using their own drones as well as those made by others, including Turkish defense company Baykar, to strike Russian forces.

Read more on air defense systems

Ukrainian air power, even such as it is currently, has played an important role in blunting Russian aggression thus far. Nevertheless, recent setbacks on the ground for Kyiv and a military resurgence by Moscow in the aftermath of the Russian presidential elections highlight the need for additional Ukrainian air power.

“If employed innovatively and jointly with other Ukrainian service elements, the jets could be a force multiplier.”

Current debates on the provision of new armaments for Ukraine center not only on procuring basic defense needs such as artillery shells, but on whether to provide longer-range offensive missiles and to what degree fighter jets should be incorporated into Ukraine’s military capabilities and strategy.

To date, Denmark, along with the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium – NATO countries that worked with the U.S. to jointly manufacture F-16s – have pledged the aircraft to Ukraine. Additional NATO allies are providing training to Ukraine’s pilots and ground crews.



Despite initial expectations that Russia would dominate the air battle against Ukraine, the skies over the battlefield have been best described as “contested,” with neither Moscow nor Kyiv dominating extensively or exclusively.

While Ukraine’s air force was smaller and less capable in comparison to the Russian air force at the beginning of the war, the provision to Kyiv of air defenses such as Soviet-era and NATO surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) was able to keep the control of the skies over Ukraine in dispute.

So, will the delivery of some 60 F-16 Fighting Falcon (aka Viper) jets – possibly beginning as early as this summer – have an effect on the air battle and, potentially, the course of the war in Ukraine?

Less likely: F-16s will make no difference

It is possible that the transfer of NATO F-16s will make no major difference in the air battle over Ukraine and, ultimately, in the war. Despite intensive flight training in NATO countries, Ukrainian pilots are relatively new to this airframe and, despite their patriotic zeal, their lack of flight hours and combat experience in the fourth-generation (non-stealth) F-16s could be costly.

Russian fighter jets such as the fourth-generation Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-29 are a match for the NATO F-16; Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft, as fourth-generation-plus fighters, are generally considered superior to the F-16. The Russian Su-57 is considered a fifth-generation fighter and has stealth features.

The airmanship and dogfighting capability of Russian pilots may also be a match for Ukrainian pilots, resulting in significant losses in terms of F-16 aircraft and, equally importantly, F-16 trained pilots. (Most Russian air losses to date have been to Ukrainian air defense systems.)

Perhaps more challenging for Kyiv, Moscow also has very capable land-based air defenses including the S-300/-350 and S-400 SAM systems that threaten Ukrainian aircraft flying within its extended range. Importantly, the S-400 is considered one of the world’s most capable SAM systems.

In addition to strategic SAM systems, Russia also has mobile air defenses and MANPADS; A-50 airborne warning and control aircraft provide air situational awareness to friendly Russian forces.

Keeping Ukrainian F-16s airborne may be a challenge as well. Ukrainian airfields will be prime targets for Russian strikes from ballistic and cruise missiles, bombs and one-way attack drones, challenging aircraft sortie rates. Moscow has also threatened to strike allied NATO airfields outside Ukraine that host F-16s bound for Kyiv.

Ukrainian maintenance technicians are being trained on the new aircraft, but the F-16s are likely more sophisticated than the systems they are used to working on. Foreign, private contractors may supplement the technicians, but the availability of spare parts will also be critical to keeping planes in the air.

As a result of these challenges, informed analysts and policymakers reasonably argue that NATO’s time, money and effort would be better spent on other advanced weapons systems (ATACMS and UCAVs) and ammunition (artillery and air defense missiles) rather than F-16 fighter jets.

More likely: F-16s will make some difference

The arrival of NATO F-16s will clearly bring a new political and military dimension to the war. The skies over Ukraine could become increasingly contested, stretching Russian military resources and complicating Moscow’s operational strategy.

While the F-16 is not a panacea for all that ails Ukraine’s armed forces and its campaign, for instance personnel shortages, the fighter jets will significantly increase Kyiv’s potential offensive and defensive air capabilities, creating a new threat vector against Russia at a critical point in the conflict.

The F-16s offer the possibility of close air support to friendly ground forces, the suppression of enemy air defenses and an enhancement to the capabilities of the country’s missile and air defenses. The initial success or failure of the F-16 in these missions will likely be predicated on the weapons (such as air-air and air-ground) and the avionic capabilities of the newly arriving jet fighters, as well as on the skills of the pilots themselves.

Moreover, high-risk F-16 raids into Russian-held territory in Ukraine against military or highly symbolic targets could draw Moscow’s ire but also could put political pressure on the Kremlin and further weaken the Russian public’s support of the war.

In the ongoing management of escalation risks with Russia (conventional weapons to weapons of mass destruction), U.S. officials have said that Kyiv’s use of F-16s must only be in Ukrainian airspace and not in Russian sovereign territory. Of course, that policy may change over time, depending on circumstances.

The expected arrival of these aircraft from the West this year will also likely counter perceptions of sagging morale in Kyiv, in the Ukrainian armed forces and among the country’s people fighting for self-determination and their very existence. It will also provide a clear statement to Russia of NATO’s continuing support of Ukraine, undermining Moscow’s current message that the West is abandoning Kyiv.

Despite not being a cutting-edge military aircraft in comparison to fourth-generation-plus and fifth-generation aircraft, the multi-role F-16 is nevertheless widely considered to be the “Swiss Army knife” of modern jet fighters. If employed innovatively and jointly with other Ukrainian service elements, the jets could be a force multiplier for Kyiv.

While new Ukrainian F-16 air assets are unlikely to be decisive in achieving air superiority in the current war or in ultimately deciding the outcome of the war, these aircraft will increase the versatility, firepower and responsiveness of the Ukrainian forces at a critical time in the conflict, potentially helping to thwart and reverse Russian political-military objectives in Ukraine.

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