Netherlands Considering Providing F-16s to Ukraine: First in a New Wave of Western Fighter Jets?

On January 20 Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Wopke Hoekstra announced that his country was considering with an “open mind” the possibility of providing F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth generation fighter jets to Ukraine. Speaking before of the meeting of defence ministers from around 50 countries at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, his statement followed months of Ukrainian requests for the provision of fighter aircraft, and after the Netherlands was reported by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to have pledged to provide Patriot long range air defence systems to the Eastern European state. The Dutch government is also interested in providing Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, although Germany has yet to grant permission for third party exports to the country despite others such as Poland, Finland and Spain showing a strong interest in supplying the same tank class from their own inventories. Minister Hoekstra’s statement at Ramstein follows his assertion during a parliamentary debate there were “no taboos” about the delivery of F-16s and other equipment, with such a move gaining support from other parliamentarians. 

Calls for F-16 deliveries have been made widely by Ukrainian officials and military personnel. The fighter class is by far the most widely fielded in the Western world with over 4000 built and several thousand in storage across multiple member states. F-16s are currently being phased out of Dutch service to be replaced by F-35s, with neighbouring Norway having already retired all F-16s to field an entirely fifth generation combat fleet. The Falcon has relatively modest maintenance requirements and operational costs, and although likely to be less optimal for Ukraine’s defence needs than the Swedish Gripen and Soviet MiG-29, the latter which Ukraine already operates but has seen numbers quickly depleted, it is far more readily available than the other two classes. Questions regarding the ability of the Cold War era fighter class to sway the balance of power in the theatre, and the potential risk that a delivery could seriously tarnish its reputation, are nevertheless expected to be primary factors influencing Western states to refrain from providing the aircraft. The United States Air Force ceased F-16 acquisitions in early 2005, with the aircraft’s capabilities increasingly considered obsolete as those in service across leading NATO militaries are quickly being phased out in favour of stealthy fifth generation F-35s. 

Against top end Russian fighters such as the Su-35S, which are not only close to twice the size but also considerably more modern, F-16s could take heavy losses much as Ukraine’s current inventory of fighters already have. Other assets such as MiG-31 interceptors, which have around four times the air to air engagement range of the F-16, would pose further challenges. The Falcon’s lack of stealth capabilities would also seriously limit its survivability against Russian air defences, which were designed to engage much higher end and stealthier aircraft and have proven capable of destroying fourth generation fighters hundreds of kilometres into Ukrainian airspace. F-16s provided to Ukraine are unlikely to be equipped with costly electronically scanned array radars such as the AN/APG-83, with their older mechanically scanned array radars being far more vulnerable to jamming and placing them at a strong disadvantage against modern Russian fighter classes. The F-16’s lack of an austere airfield capability comparable to the MiG-29 or Gripen could also seriously limited its options for basing as airbases across Ukraine are comfortably within range of Russian missile and drone strikes. These among other factors are expected to influence potential suppliers against making F-16 deliveries at least while hostilities are ongoing, with an underperformance in the theatre potentially seriously impacting morale not only in Ukraine, but among its NATO neighbours many of which rely heavily on the ageing fighters for their own defence.