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Talk of F-16s to Ukraine a Triumph of Symbolism over Substance

“When [we] have F-16, we will win this war,” said Yurii Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command.

“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews—just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what y’all say, that’s called World War III,” said Joe Biden on March 11, 2022.

After months of saying no, the Biden administration has agreed to allow the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine. This appears to be both another major escalation and another crossing of the so-called red line that the United States has blithely stepped over so many times in its proxy war against Russia.

And this announcement has, of course, generated a number of questions regarding what kind of impact the F-16s can have on the war.

But as noted by Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, “F-16s will not be relevant to the upcoming counter offensive.”

Ryder’s statement is a great example of making the obvious obvious, as training up the pilots and thousands of maintainers necessary to support militarily relevant numbers of F-16s will take tens of billions of dollars and more than two years. Still, Biden’s stated openness to allowing the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine does raise some questions worth addressing.

The most important question that comes to mind is whether this commitment to get F-16s to Ukraine is more symbolism than substance.

As Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov correctly notes, “There is no infrastructure for the operation of the F-16 in Ukraine and the needed number of pilots and maintenance personnel is not there either.”

That this is the case is confirmed by top Pentagon official Colin Kahl, who gives what should be considered a best-case scenario when he says, “Used F-16s could be provided for as little as $2 billion, and fielded in as little as 18–24 months,” according to Air & Space Forces magazine.

Both men are pointing out that one can’t simply throw some F-16s over the wall to Ukraine and expect them to start providing the air power Ukraine so sorely needs. Even 50 F-16s will require many hundreds of highly trained maintainers that require years of training. Then you have to set up the logistics necessary to support the F-16s, including spare parts, fuel, weapons, etc. Also, operating any substantially sized F-16 fleet effectively will require a .....

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