There is a military axiom that only armies can take and hold ground. It is also true that armies don’t take or hold ground for long without air support. With the breaking news that allies are sending modern tanks to Ukraine, there is now even more urgency to send the aircraft that Kyiv has been asking for since the early phases of this war.
The arguments against such supply were almost identical to those which held up tanks; the crossing of a perceived red line with Russia, and the challenges of integration such as training and logistics. To date, these have blocked the transfer of any aircraft deemed to be too provocative. With Germany agreeing to release the Leopard 2 to Ukraine, it now appears that even the most cautious allies are now ready to cross that line.
But before any such supply is made, we need to be clear what the aim of our support is. Our current piecemeal and slow transfer of equipment is more akin to a “not lose” strategy; a strategy that is paid for in Ukrainian blood and relies on compromise or Russian capitulation – neither of which look likely outcomes. However, I believe it is to ensure that Ukraine wins its war with Russia, where winning means the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
“Winning” doesn’t just mean an end to the current conflict, but also maintaining any hard won gains. Ukraine not only needs to win the tactical battles to come, but also establish and sustain a defensive posture which deters future aggression. Any aid offered should be made with a clear eye on the future make-up of the Ukrainian armed forces, which will need to transition away from their current Russian hardware.
Re-equipping an armed forces in contact with enemy forces is never straightforward, but if Ukraine is to win, and then remain strong and safe, it needs an air force capable of at least matching the Russians now and in the future.
Once this is understood, it becomes obvious that Ukraine needs combat aircraft of sufficient capability, in quantity, with a secure supply chain. It also needs aircraft that can be integrated quickly and with minimal support. I won’t belittle the effort required to achieve this, but the Ukrainians have already demonstrated they are extraordinarily adaptable and I have every confidence in that continuing.
Matching demand with supply, I believe that the F-16 is by far the strongest candidate to re-arm the Ukrainian Air Force. Despite its maturity it remains a very capable air to air and air to ground fighter with plenty of longevity, and the modern weapons it can carry are every bit as important and valuable as the platform. It is in service with multiple nations, most of which have well established plans to replace them and are already strong donors to Ukraine. I have written and spoken elsewhere about the innovative ways it can be introduced quickly, and in my view could be integrated as quickly as the new tanks.
We must not forget that surface to air systems and drones play an equally important part of the air force, but the addition of the F-16 in significant numbers would provide a key element that will not only protect the Ukrainian Army and people on the ground now, but also be the tip of the spear when holding the ensuing peace later. Perhaps even more vitally, the transfer of combat aircraft will send an even more powerful message to Russia that this is a war they cannot win. Ever.
Greg Bagwell CB CBE is a retired Air Marshal and combat pilot. He was the UK’s Air Commander for 4 years and is current President of the Air and Space Power Association