Ukraine Claims Poland In Talks To Transfer Its F-16s (Updated)

Poland says it’s backing a collaborative effort to get F-16s into Ukrainian hands, but didn’t specify if it could include its advanced F-16s.

byThomas Newdick|
Polish Armed Forces/Piotr Łysakowski


Ukraine says it has received “positive signals” from Poland that indicate that the NATO country is willing to supply Kyiv with the F-16 fighter jets that it’s long been campaigning to get. Meanwhile, Polish officials have confirmed that they could send some of their F-16s to Ukraine, although it would have to be done as part of a coordinated effort with other NATO allies. Moreover, the advanced capabilities of these jets, in particular, and Poland’s own need for them, appear to make such a transfer at least questionable.

Andrii Yermak, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, provided the following statement on Telegram today:

“Work on obtaining F-16 fighters continues. We have positive signals from Poland, which is ready to pass them on to us in coordination with NATO.”


“Tanks, fighter jets — a great combination for turning Russian enemies into fertilizer.”

“We will act in full coordination here,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a press conference today, according to Ukrinform, Ukraine’s state information and news agency.

Morawiecki had been asked whether Poland would be willing to transfer some of its F-16s, which are the most sophisticated fighter jets it currently operates.

The Polish prime minister said that the country would be open to providing Ukraine with F-16s, provided that a more comprehensive framework deal was set up and then approved — this would require likely signing off among an alliance of NATO F-16 operators, as well as the U.S. government, as the original source of the jets.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks at a press conference in Kyiv last year. Ruslan Kaniuka/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

“Just as it happened a few months ago with MiG-29 aircraft, any other aircraft assistance [to Ukraine] will be coordinated, implemented and, possibly, transferred together with other NATO member states. We will act in full coordination here,” Morawiecki emphasized.

Morawiecki was pointing to previous plans to transfer Soviet-era MiG-29s from the Polish Air Force (and potentially other NATO operators) to Ukraine, although these came to nothing after a proposal to deliver the jets via the United States collapsed. The delivery of fighter jets has, at least until now, been widely viewed as a provocative move, as far as relations with Moscow are concerned. So far, only various helicopters have been supplied to Ukraine, as well as weapons and spare parts for its existing fighter jets.

A Polish MiG-29 (foreground) and F-16 perform for the camera. Polish Armed Forces

When asked, the Polish prime minister did not state how many F-16s Poland might be able to provide to Ukraine.

The Polish Air Force acquired 48 F-16C/D Block 52 jets under the Peace Sky program and these were delivered between 2006 and 2008, making them some of the younger — and most capable — Vipers available to NATO commanders in Europe. The fact that these jets are so modern would make them a highly surprising choice for transfer to Ukraine, not least because Poland still needs them for a wide range of frontline missions.

Able to be configured with conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), the Polish F-16s are armed with AIM-120C-5/7 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinder that can be fired off-boresight using the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS). Offensive stores include the AGM-65 Maverick missile, AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), and AGM-158A/B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), as well as Paveway laser-guided bombs and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). The aircraft are fitted with Sniper targeting pods and can carry the DB-110 tactical reconnaissance pod.

Carrying a Sniper pod and with CFTs fitted, a Polish F-16C armed with AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles ejects an infrared flare. Polish Armed Forces/Bartek Bera

If the transfer of some Polish F-16s to Ukraine was approved it seems likely that many of these weapons would not be included in the package. Above all, the impressively long range (around 330 miles in its initial AGM-158A form) and stealth characteristics of the JASSM would rule out its transfer to Ukraine. More realistically, the F-16s would be provided in an ‘austere’ configuration, with weapons only included if they were judged to be less escalatory.

Polish Armed Forces

Nevertheless, the statements from Warsaw and Kyiv today suggest that momentum could be building for a coordinated effort to send F-16s to Ukraine. This could parallel the same kind of international initiative that eventually secured Leopard 2 tanks for Kyiv.

As stated previously, a transfer of F-16s to Ukraine would require approval from the Pentagon and there are signs that that could be about to happen.

Last week, Politico reported that a group of U.S. military officials was “quietly pushing” the Department of Defense to sign off on an F-16 package for Ukraine.

While Ukrainian calls for F-16s are nothing new, the landscape now appears to have changed, chiefly because of the previous approval of Patriot air defense systems and modern Western main battle tanks for Ukraine. Both these were seen as off-limits just months ago, much like modern fighter jets.

At the same time, the F-16 has become a higher-priority item for Ukraine, not least because Patriot missiles and tanks are now on their way. Meanwhile, Russia’s continued cruise missile and drone onslaught against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure demonstrate a continued need for more robust air defenses, including new fighters.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said over the weekend that fighter jets and long-range missiles were now being discussed as part of “fast-track” talks to get more arms to Kyiv’s forces.

Last week, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, reiterated that Ukraine was looking for different kinds of fourth-generation aircraft, not exclusively F-16s.

“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense,” Sak remarked. “It’s not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want.”

However, as well as being the type most often mentioned by Ukrainian officials as well as Ukrainian Air Force pilots, the F-16 has also been mentioned by other European NATO members, including the Netherlands.

A Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 approaches a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker for refueling during a NATO exercise over Germany in 2020. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessi Monte (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessi Monte

The Netherlands, another NATO F-16 operator, announced earlier this month that it would look at any request to transfer its aircraft to Ukraine with an “open mind,” before apparently walking back on that statement, as you can read about here.

Since then, Denmark — also an F-16 operator — has been mentioned in the context of potential fighter transfers to Ukraine. A French government official confirmed that unnamed Eastern European countries and Denmark were possible candidates, but also didn’t rule out transferring aircraft from France’s own stocks.

Unlike the Polish fleet, the Danish and Dutch F-16s also mentioned in the context of Ukrainian arms transfers are much older jets, successively upgraded but now being withdrawn in favor of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter in both cases.

A Polish F-16, without conformal fuel tanks fitted, escorts a U.S. Air Force B-52H strategic bomber during a joint exercise in Polish airspace. Polish Armed Forces/Piotr Łysakowski

Again, the decision of the U.S. government would hold the key to Ukraine getting F-16s, from whatever country. Here, it seems that there could be growing support on Capitol Hill.

For example, Jon Finer, the deputy national security advisor for the Biden Administration, recently said that “We have not ruled in or out any specific systems.” On the issue of fighter jets, he noted that this issue would be “very carefully” discussed with Ukraine and its allies.

As well as the argument that Patriots and advanced tanks have set a precedent for the transfer of new types of weapons, there seems to be an increasing concern that Ukraine will soon require new fighter jets as a matter of urgency.

According to a Department of Defense official that spoke to Politico, the Ukrainian Air Force “will not be able to compete” once its stocks of Soviet-era missiles for its fighter jets and ground-based air defense systems are exhausted. Such a situation could threaten Ukraine’s continued ability to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority over the country.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have more recently begun to address the concerns that some have voiced about the practicality of introducing an advanced new fighter jet.

Students perform an aircraft inspection during an F-16 Aircraft Maintenance Apprentice Course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Vernon Cunningham

Sources in Kyiv and Washington have stated that up to 50 pilots are currently ready to start training on the F-16, all of these having sufficient command of English and combat missions on Soviet-era fighter types. The same sources claim that these pilots could be trained to operate the F-16 within three months, which sounds highly optimistic. On the other hand, the need to start some kind of training syllabus to prepare Ukrainian pilots to fly Western fighter jets is something that we have explored at length in the past.

A tweet from Oleksiy Danylov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council, with a video showing an F-16 takeoff and the words “Soon in Ukraine” posted on January 27:

Now, according to reports, Ukraine is also looking at contractor providers in the United States who also might be able to offer flight training, to accelerate the process. At least one red air contractor in the United States is already operating secondhand F-16s, but integrating a cadre of Ukrainian pilots into a specially tailored training program would require a lot of work and infrastructure, and it’s highly unlikely that a contractor would be able to do this, especially at the kind of speed required.

Clearly, the F-16 remains very much at the center of discussions around supplying new fighter jets to Ukraine. At the same time, an increasing number of operators within NATO have effectively thrown their hats into the ring when it comes to setting up some kind of coordinated effort to make these aircraft available to Kyiv. Some of those candidates are more realistic than others, however, and transferring a portion of the Polish F-16 fleet would appear to be less likely than securing secondhand jets from NATO operators actively drawing down their Viper fleets.

At this point, almost anything is possible, although there needs to be a firm decision made in the Pentagon. At the very least, however, this looks like an issue that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Update, January 31: Wojciech Skurkiewicz, Secretary of State in the Polish Ministry of National Defense, as well as a senator for the Radom region of the country, has spoken out against a possible transfer of Polish Air Force F-16s to Ukraine.

In a tweet today, the Vice-Chairman of the Polish National Defense Committee, Pawel Krutul, pointed out that transferring F-16s rather than MiG-29s, as was previously planned, would have a degrading effect on the Polish Armed Forces. Skurkiewicz responded in agreement, stating: “There is no question of handing over Polish F-16s.”

This contradicts the claims of the Office of the President of Ukraine yesterday but doesn’t seem to necessarily be linked to the statement from U.S. President Joe Biden, who said that the United States will not be sending F-16s to Ukraine — at least for the time being.

As we have stated, transferring Polish Air Force F-16s to Ukraine would be a surprising move, bearing in mind their advanced configuration and central role within the Polish and NATO missions. On the other hand, it remains possible that Poland could act as a lever to encourage other allied F-16 operators to commit their jets to Ukraine. At that point, of course, a formal transfer would all depend on approval from the United States. After all, Biden’s comment yesterday doesn’t necessarily rule out the transfer of non-U.S.-operated F-16s to Ukraine.

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