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Ukraine: F-16 deliveries moving closer to the battlefield

November 8, 2023

Five of a promised 42 US-made attack aircraft have made their way from the Netherlands to Romania. Now pilot training begins.

F 16 fighter jet at Skydstrup Air Base in Vojens, Denmark
The F-16 is an American-made fighter jetImage: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/IMAGO

Ukraine's victory against Russia is impossible without air power, Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine's top commander, has said. This week, Ukraine took a small step towards that goal: Five American-made F-16 jets have arrived at the Borcea Air Base in southeastern Romania.

From there, it's about a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Ukrainian border. It's where Ukrainian pilots will soon be trained under Romanian and other NATO supervision, a Romanian military analyst, told DW.

"Training will start soon, and will last in the time interval between 5 and 9 months, depending on the individual skills of each pilot from Ukraine," Pitu said.

Pilot training in Romania follows a program that already took place in the US, Yurii Ihnat, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, told DW.

Pentagon to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s

Training Center a NATO-Lockheed project

Romania's training hub is a joint effort with Lockheed, the F-16 manufacturer, and is intended for "not only Ukrainian pilots but also Romanian pilots and maybe some from other countries," Pitu said.

Until recently Romania's military prosecutor general, Pitu is looking ahead to a second harsh winter of war.

"In the best-case scenario, Ukraine will emerge victorious from this war with this initial fleet of 42 F-16s and with anti-aircraft weapons on the ground, which also come from NATO," he said. The jets, he added, "allow Ukraine to use a wide range of missiles that cannot be attached to other planes that are not in the NATO arsenal.”

Why Ukraine is pleading for Western fighter jets

Air supremacy by spring

Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian general, is betting big on the F-16s. In an interview with the Economist, a British world affairs magazine, he acknowledged Ukraine's battlefield difficulties, saying that "today the enemy continues to maintain significant air superiority, which complicates the advance of our troops and is one of the key factors that transform the nature of hostilities into a positional form.”

From the start of Ukraine's counteroffensive in May, Ukrainian soldiers came under heavy fire from Russian helicopters. Russian jets attacked Ukrainian towns and positions with missiles from a safe distance.

Catalin Pitu
Military analyst Catalin Pitu says Ukrainian pilots will soon be trained under Romanian and other NATO supervisionImage: privat

On the ground, Russian troops are dug in behind extensive minefields and other barriers that Ukrainian forces have not found a good solution for. There may be as many as eight million mines. For comparison, German forces put down about twice as many mines over a much larger area in North Africa during the Second World War.

It's to Russia's advantage that the front remains static. Despite heavy losses, Zaluzhny said that the Kremlin has deeper reserves it can throw into the fight. It also has more shells to fire. He has warned of a protracted situation akin to the First World War when the front barely budged for years and both sides suffered massively.

Zaluzhny's assessment is a wake-up call for Ukraine's allies, Nico Lange, a German security analyst.

"Ukraine needs fighter jets and drones, tools to counter Russian artillery systems, and better electronic warfare. Whether there will be long-term trench warfare depends on what and how quickly we deliver," he wrote in a tweet.

In spite of the odds, Ukrainian forces have shown success. They were recently able to sink a Russian warship near the Crimean peninsula that was used to attack Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine looks to secure infrastructure from winter strikes

Ukrainian success on the Dnipro River

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank tracking the war, has noted that Ukraine has been able to make headway along the Dnipro River — a major waterway that cuts through the country.

"Heavy Russian interdiction efforts along the Dnipro River have not prevented Ukrainian forces from transferring additional personnel and materiel to positions on the east bank," an ISW report stated, though it emphasized that many details could not be independently verified.

Pitu, the former Romanian military official, said he is convinced of Ukraine's ability to liberate its territory from Russian occupation. The F-16s play an important role, he said, which is why transferring them to Ukraine will be done "in the utmost secrecy."

He expects Russia will make them a priority target because they are a "real threat to them."

This article was originally written in German.

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