Repeated calls from Ukrainian officials and pilots for F-16 fighter jets look like they finally could be a step closer to being answered, with confirmation from the Dutch government that it will look at any request to transfer its aircraft with an “open mind.” Those were the words of the Dutch Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra, speaking yesterday ahead of the meeting of defense ministers from around 50 countries at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, which you can read more about here.
As well as F-16s, the Dutch government confirmed that it would also look at the possibility of paying for the transfer of Leopard 2 main battle tanks for Ukraine — speculation that Germany might allow the re-export of these tanks from third-party NATO stocks has been a central theme surrounding the Ramstein meeting.
However, as well as advanced tanks, modern Western fighter jets have also long been one of the most in-demand items as far as Ukraine is concerned, but so far no concrete commitments have been made. Assistance in terms of fighter aircraft has been limited to air-launched weapons as well as spare parts for existing aircraft.
A video showing Ukrainian MiG-29 jet fighters carrying and firing AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARMs:
Minister Hoekstra’s words suggest that no formal request for F-16s has been received from the government in Kyiv. Speaking during a parliamentary debate, Hoekstra added that there were “no taboos” about the delivery of these jets and other equipment. A final decision would still rest with the Dutch Cabinet, although at least one parliamentarian, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of the liberal D66 party, has called for the government to preempt a request and offer both F-16s and tanks to Kyiv.
However, Hoekstra pointed out that it was Dutch government policy to only send military aid that Ukraine actually asks for.
That said, there have been plenty of calls — from both Ukrainian officials and service people — for fighter jets, including F-16s specifically, since the full-scale Russian invasion began.
“It is in your power to guarantee such artillery and any aircraft is found that will crush terror,” Zelensky said. “It is in your power to make that victory. So may your decisions hit accurately. Just like our heroes on the front lines.”
“In the case of the F-16, you have a lot of options for different training programs, different electronic countermeasures, different engines, different everything — it’s like Lego!” the Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot known only by his callsign “Juice,” told The War Zone last December. “In general, I don’t say that the F-16 is better as an aircraft itself, but it may be the most realistic choice for Ukraine, considering capability, availability, affordability, and most importantly sustainability.”
Should a formal request from Kyiv land with the Dutch government, the Netherlands could be in a particularly good position to provide F-16s to Ukraine.
With the replacement of the Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 fleet by the F-35A stealth fighter now well underway, plans call for the older jets to be retired completely sometime next year.
Currently, the remaining F-16s are all located at Volkel Air Base, where the local frontline fleet was reportedly reduced to just 24 aircraft last summer. Originally, the Netherlands received 213 F-16s, starting in 1979, although numbers have been cut back at regular intervals since the end of the Cold War, with some of these surplus aircraft sold to Chile and Jordan. A core fleet of 68 jets was upgraded to F-16AM/BM standard under the Mid-Life Update (MLU) program, bringing them broadly in line with the U.S. Air Force’s more advanced F-16C/D Block 50/52.
More recently, the Dutch agreed to sell 12 F-16s previously used for pilot training in the United States to Draken International, which planned to operate them for red air adversary support. Another 28 Dutch F-16s were also offered to Draken, should a follow-on order be placed.
The fate of this 2021 agreement remains unclear, but it appears that Draken, despite some flight testing from its base at Lakeland, Florida, has not formally taken delivery of the aircraft, which had once been expected to remain in the United States. Instead, last December, six of the jets made a surprise transatlantic flight, via Lajes in the Azores, to Gosselies in Belgium, where they are expected to be overhauled by SABENA.
There are rumors, however, that those F-16s may instead be transferred to Bulgaria, which is seeking a stopgap fighter while it waits to receive new-build F-16 Block 70s from the new production line in South Carolina. Unconfirmed reports suggest that more F-16s taken from Dutch stocks may head the same way.
We have approached Draken International for clarification on its F-16 plans, but if it’s the case that that transfer doesn’t go through, then the same jets, once refurbished, could potentially become available to Ukraine.
Even discounting the 12 F-16s in the initial batch for Draken, the Dutch have plenty more of the jets (at least 28 more, based on the follow-on option) that could be provided to Ukraine.
In the past, Col. Yuri Ignat, chief spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command, has said that two 12-aircraft squadrons of F-16s, plus reserves, would be sufficient to help turn the tables against Russian airpower.
In terms of capabilities, the Dutch F-16s, while old, have been continuously modernized as part of the MLU. As such, they are armed with the active-radar AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) that Ukrainian pilots have specifically called for. Air-to-ground armament includes GBU-10, -12, and -24 laser-guided bombs, as well as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). The Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) could also be employed by these F-16s and the jets are compatible with Sniper and Litening targeting pods. Other key features include datalinks, GPS, and night-vision goggle compatibility.
As we have detailed in the past, supplying F-16s to Ukraine is just one part of a larger puzzle when it comes to introducing much-needed Western fighter equipment to supplement Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets now in use.
Just as important as the jets themselves is the training for the Ukrainian pilots and maintainers who would operate them.
Col. Ignat has said it would likely take around six months for pilots to convert to new fighters, with the bulk of this being related to tactics and the use of new weapons. However, other estimations put the training time as much longer, based on the fact that transitioning a foreign air arm to the F-16 typically takes many months, if not years, to accomplish — even without a war raging at home.
There has been some progress made here, though, after the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which called for funding to start training Ukrainian pilots on American fighter jets. You can read more about the implications of this here, although the specific wording did not appear once the act was signed into law by President Joe Biden last December.
Before F-16s for Ukraine becomes a reality, the U.S. government would have to approve the transfer. Thereafter, training on these jets could potentially take place within the United States, where bilateral training partnerships already exist for foreign F-16 operators. Alternatively, Ukrainian personnel could perhaps be embedded with F-16 units of other NATO members, provided they have the capacity and sufficient instructors.
Last summer, Col. Ignat said that the Ukrainian Air Force had “at least 30 pilots” with sufficient English-language skills to start a U.S. fighter training syllabus. If Kyiv gets its F-16s, some of these may well become the very first aircrew to fly them.
What’s abundantly clear is that Ukraine still desperately wants to get its hands on modern Western fighter jets, whether F-16s or other types. It remains unclear for now whether or not the Dutch are at least considering transferring F-16s will pay dividends for the Ukrainian Air Force. It may be the kick-start needed to realize these longstanding aims, or it may be another false start in Ukraine’s search for new fighter equipment.
Updated 5:30 P.M. EST:
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has significantly walked back Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra's comments about the possibility of Dutch F-16 fighter heading to Ukraine. Though Rutte did not necessarily rule out the possibility of such a transfer entirely, he did say that were no plans to do so currently, and that it seemed unlikely to happen in the near term.
“That is a very big step, bigger than tanks,” Rutte said in regard to the possibility of sending fighter jets to Ukraine, according to Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. He also said that Ukrainian officials had made no specific request to the government of the Netherlands about F-16s.
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