Former Air Force chief: Giving Ukraine F-16 fighters would not end the war

F-16 fighters.
F-16 fighters. Source: SCANPIX / AFP

Former commander of the Estonian Air Force Brig. Gen. Jaak Tarien said that giving Ukraine U.S. F-16 fighter jets would not bring a swift end to the war and adopting the aircraft is reliant on complicated procedures.

"They are not magic bullets [that would end the war], while it would be a step forward for Ukraine in terms of getting its airspace under control," Tarien said on the "Terevisioon" morning show.

But because Russian warplanes are not very active in Ukrainian airspace today, the priority would be hitting ground targets as opposed to dogfights, the former air chief explained.

"Their role would be to provide air cover for the front – suppress Russian air defense radars, hit logistics behind enemy lines. The F-16 also makes for a solid intelligence tool with its radars. Therefore, they could be used in several roles other than what a fighter is expected to do, which is air superiority, because the other side is not fielding that many planes," the brigadier general said.

"Of course, should Russia decide to deploy its planes, the F-16 would be used to counter them," he added.

F-16 difficult to adopt

Tarien also pointed out a series of reasons why it would be difficult for Ukraine to adopt the aircraft quickly.

He suggested that Ukraine would have to alter its entire air force system – from service principles to airspace control. "For example, air traffic controllers and units designating targets – they would have to retrain to a certain extent too. There are many nuances Ukraine would have to consider, and in wartime to boot."

Retraining would also be in order for Ukrainian pilots who have been flying Russian planes until now.

"Little is up to the pilot according to the Soviet and Russian doctrine. The very design of the aircraft leaves the pilot with little in the way of visual information –the cockpit offers a narrower view out and the radar has reduced range – the main thing is to have radio communications to be told what to do from the ground. The Western concept gives the pilot a lot more freedom and a lot more information. The pilot sees more and has better radars and sensors at their disposal. They are the one in the middle of the battlefield and in charge of decisions," Tarien explained.

He said that Romania recently switched to F-16s. "Based on their experience, the longer a pilot has flown Russian planes, the harder it is for them."

The former air chief also pointed out that Western planes use a different system of units, with altitude measured in feet and air speed in Mach numbers, while Russian planes use the metric system to measure altitude in meters and air speed in kilometers per hour.

"This means that air traffic and battle control needs to be dual-system as Ukraine is still flying Russian planes, and the addition of Western ones would necessitate using two sets of units. It will be difficult and complicated, but as I said – it is something that needs to be done."

The brigadier general said that the F-16s would constitute a longer-term aid project, while giving Ukraine aircraft they already know how to fly would yield immediate effect.

"But these are near the end of their serviceable lifespan. That is why it is crucial to help Ukraine switch to Western technology, even though it will be a major challenge for many involved, not just pilots. But it is something that needs to be done in the long run," he said.

In terms of ground infrastructure, Tarien said no major reorganization is necessary as Ukraine has already learned that things that are bolted to the ground and cannot relocate will be taken out quickly, which is why all of their remaining systems are mobile.

"And they have been very effective at monitoring their airspace. This is reflected if only in the success they've found in countering cruise missiles and killer drones. I believe no great changes are in order here."

Western countries are debating whether to also give Ukraine F-16 fighter jets, in addition to the recent decision to send MBTs, to help it ward off Russian aggression. Even though some countries have expressed willingness, no decision has been made yet.

Jaak Tarien was head of the Estonian Air Force 2012-2018 and has a master's degree from the United States Air Command and Staff College (ACSC).


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Editor: Mait Ots, Marcus Turovski

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