The United States has invested more than $45 billion so far in military aid to Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. Allies have chipped in billions more.
Yet among all the advanced weapons provided for the conflict, NATO members have drawn the line at airpower, refusing to provide the advanced jets Ukraine needs to turn the tide in its favor. In effect, we’ve chosen to prolong the war and the suffering of the Ukrainian people by withholding the tools of victory.
It’s not for lack of interest. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought advanced airpower, U.S. lawmakers have asked about it, and airpower advocates have argued for it. The President, however, has refused.
Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now,” President Joe Biden told ABC News in an interview broadcast Feb. 24. “There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military, now, to provide F-16s.”
Perhaps the President isn’t talking to the right military people. Biden says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “needs tanks, he needs artillery, he needs air defense, including another HIMARS.” And there’s no doubt he does.
But he also needs attack aircraft with long-range precision weapons that can challenge Russia’s ability to attack Ukraine, destroy Russian air defense systems near the borders, and kill Russian tanks, artillery, and dug-in positions in the Eastern part of Ukraine.
As a combat veteran F-16 pilot and commander, I know this firsthand: Russian surface-to-air missile sites can be lucrative targets for the Viper.
Now, the Biden administration cites three reasons for saying no to providing Ukraine with multirole F-16s—or Swedish Gripens, which have also been discussed: First, the President and his team have said it would take too long to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s, and too long as well to set up the needed maintenance and logistics train for the aircraft. Second, it says other short-term needs trump the longer-term advantage the jets would provide; third, it argues Ukraine needs to fight Russians inside Ukraine, rather than the long-distance attack capabilities represented by modern fighter aircraft.
Undersecretary of defense for policy Colin Kahl, responding to questions from lawmakers during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, cited the long lead times for acquiring and training as the major hurdles, arguing that training now in anticipation of getting F-16s later is misguided: “It doesn’t make sense to start to train them on a system they may never get,” he said. Ground-based artillery systems are therefore more appropriate.
Unfortunately, the comparative cost is only part of the equation; the comparative effects of air-delivered weapons are not equal. There’s nothing like the morale-killing nature of air-delivered weapons to destroy an enemy’s will to fight.
It’s now 32 years since I led the 614th Fighter Squadron in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. At a recent reunion, we gathered to relive some of that past and pay tribute to those in other squadrons who did not make it home. Like Ukrainian Airmen today, my squadron mates were warriors—whether they served in the air or took care of planes on the ground. All were passionately and personally committed to their squadron mates and to the mission at hand, ruthless in their collective ability to seek out and destroy the enemy.
Over the 43 days of Operation Desert Storm, we accomplished that with stunning and sobering success. Some things have changed in the three decades since. Russian air defenses have grown more sophisticated. But so, too, have the systems on board the F-16. Fighter pilots and their spirit of attack still have the advantage over the SAM operators in both lethality and maneuverability, and they possess integrated electronic warfare defense systems for self-protection, plus the availability of new long-range air-delivered precision weapons. Equipping the F-16 with the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and its extended-range variant would make them even more deadly and effective against Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense systems.
The comparison that comes to mind in Ukraine, however, is not America’s overwhelming victory in Iraq, born largely on dominant airpower, but rather Vietnam, where self-imposed limits on airpower undermined the war effort and ultimately led to failure.
In Desert Storm, our Air Force was empowered with appropriate rules of engagement developed by our combined forces air commander Gen. Chuck Horner and my AFA colleague, then Lt. Col. (and now retired Lt. Gen.) David A. Deptula, who led the planning efforts. Our AGM-88 HARM missiles were highly effective against Iraqi SAM sites. While we suffered our share of losses—my squadron saw two very fine squadron mates shot down—we still had the ability, capacity, and authority to destroy targets wherever we saw them. The shoot-downs hardened us and made us even more determined to fight, win, and bring our squadron compatriots home alive. And we did.
That was not the case in Vietnam, where artificial limits on where and how our aircraft could attack failed to leverage the full strength and capability of U.S. airpower. Constant constraints, poor organization, and a failure to understand how to use airpower effectively needlessly put our Airmen at risk and neglectfully extended the war.
Haunted by the Korean War experience where swift U.S. successes following the Battle of Inchon set off a face-to-face conflict with China, American leaders wanted to avoid escalating the conflict in Vietnam into a direct fight with China or Russia, both of which backed North Vietnam. That fear effectively deterred us from ever fully committing to a South Vietnamese victory. Instead, we fought for a draw—an end to hostilities—and not for any semblance of victory.
In Ukraine we again seem deterred by our fear of wider conflict with Russia, even a weakened Russia that has failed miserably in its attempt to shatter a much smaller and weaker foe. To be sure, U.S. and allied support is helping Ukraine to stand up to Russia. But we should not be satisfied with helping Ukraine fight to a draw, especially as Russia occupies a swath of Eastern Ukraine. To do so is to expect future fights and future wars over the same territory again, as soon as Russia regains its military strength.
Rather, we should help Ukraine defeat Putin’s menace and ensure all adversaries know and understand the shared commitment of the U.S. and NATO to the principles of the rules-based order.
“Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said Feb. 14 during NATO meetings in Brussels. “We need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”
What the Secretary is missing is how important a good offense is to effective defense. The relative asymmetric killing power of fighter pilots in F-16s would empower Ukraine even more than the remarkable HIMARS precision ground fires. The reason is the speed, maneuverability, and effectiveness airpower can unleash from above. Doing so could put an end to the inhumanity of the Russian assault.
Putin understands power and seeks to exploit weakness. Our failure to deliver airpower to Ukraine empowers his approach, even as his ill-trained forces struggle on the ground.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict must not continue in a framework of extended debates about escalation, retaliation, or illogical justification for Western-made artillery systems. The Russians must stop now and go home. Only the fighter pilot Spirit of Attack and the overwhelming, persuasive, lethality of integrated air and space power from above will quickly send them there.
Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright is President/CEO of the Air & Space Forces Association, and a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. His last assignment was as commander, U.S. Forces Japan, and commander, 5th Air Force, Yokota Air Base, Japan.