Defense expert Ko Colijn has been providing the Dutch with information on armed conflicts for almost fifty years. For NU.nl he follows the battle in Ukraine and answers our (and your) questions. This time he discusses the possible Western delivery of fighter jets to Ukraine.
“Alles is bespreekbaar, er zijn geen taboes.” Daarmee haalde minister Wopke Hoekstra (Buitenlandse Zaken) vorige week even de wereldpers. Het was zijn antwoord op de vraag of het tijd was om gevechtsvliegtuigen aan Oekraïne te leveren.
Ook premier Mark Rutte wees het idee niet zonder meer van de hand. De Duitse bondskanselier Olaf Scholz en de Amerikaanse president Joe Biden denken daar heel anders over. Die blijven erbij dat de mogelijkheid momenteel niet als gespreksonderwerp op tafel ligt.
Nederland liep dus een blauwtje, want voor de export van F-16’s moet je eerst Amerikaanse toestemming hebben. Na het wekenlange gesteggel over tanks leek het kleine Nederland een voorschot te nemen op een discussie waar anderen nog niet aan willen.
After tanks, Ukraine also wants fighter jets
The Ukrainian government was of course delighted with all the tanks, but already had the following shopping list ready: after the Western tanks, now also F-16 planes and long-range missiles to drive the Russians out of the country. Rather today than tomorrow.
That is not completely illogical. Militarily then. Western doctrine writes air superiority (a predominance in the air, ed.) for major ground operations, especially when it comes to mobile operations. US strategists, in consultation with the Ukrainian military leadership, have concluded that only that can break the current deadlock (no one can beat the other).
Also quite cleverly timed, because the European countries are currently releasing their F-16s. They are still gathering dust or go to Latin America for a low price. Those boxes are still very good.
And let’s not forget that Ukraine is waging a just war against Russia, so another arms transfer could also be justified on legal and moral grounds.
Delivering planes would be a big new step
Nevertheless, it must be realized that a transfer of aircraft would indeed mean a step further in the war. You can’t mention tanks and fighters in the same breath, especially when you’ve been claiming for months that delivering F-16s is an escalating step and handing over ground weapons is not.
A number of opinion makers in our country consider this difference to be unimportant. They are taking over the Ukrainian wish list and find it logical that it is now the turn of the F-16s. Again: that’s allowed. It is Russia that has launched an invasion without provocation and is committing war crimes, so Ukraine can defend itself by all means. But whether it is also wise, you can ask yourself as an interpreter. And then it gets difficult.
In any case, the discussion ignores a debate, mainly in the US, between proponents of air denial (to deny the opponent airspace, ed.) and proponents of air superiority. That debate started last summer, when after months of war it became apparent that the Russians used their aircraft poorly, did not provide cover for ground troops who scuttled off with their tails between their legs and lost ground en masse (more than twice as much as the Netherlands). The Russians seemed never to have heard of air support, or at least not to have eaten cheese.
US strategists were amazed, saying Stingers and other surface-to-air missiles were cheaper and effective enough to keep Ukrainian airspace “clean”. They recommended giving Ukraine mainly surface-to-air missiles, not airplanes. Even disregarding the risk of escalation, that was a useful message.
Russia pollutes Ukrainian airspace
It must now be said in all honesty that the assessment after 10 October could have been different. Russia had suffered heavy losses until then and President Vladimir Putin decided on a second air campaign, with drones and missiles. With terror bombings on Ukrainian flats and civilian infrastructure, he hoped to give a winning spin to the war.
This is how Russia managed to “pollute” Ukrainian airspace. That could have steered the outcome of the debate in a different direction. For example, retaliatory aircraft attacks on the terror missile launch sites could have been considered.
But that didn’t happen. First of all, Ukraine claims it is shooting down more and more Russian drones and missiles over its own territory – it is already said to be 80 percent. In addition, the Russian planes firing these missiles usually venture to the border and apparently still avoid Ukrainian airspace. Moreover, the supply of Russian missiles is dwindling; Putin already has to go to Iran and North Korea to buy additional drones.
Although the air defense strategy in Ukraine is far from watertight, it apparently works.
Do the benefits outweigh the costs?
It’s a bit cynical to say, but Air Force generals also coolly see war as a cost-benefit experience. They wonder if the cost of air superiority outweigh the benefits at any cost. Uncomfortably said: Shouldn’t Kyiv occasionally let a Russian missile through?
From a purely military point of view, F-16s could take out many Russians in their trenches and completely frustrate a Russian spring offensive. There are also military personnel who believe that it is best to supply F-16s, because the aircraft is not that new. Whether this angers the Russians enough to escalate the war in a dangerous way, as Scholz and others fear, is highly questionable, they say.
Dutch generals are also not very enthusiastic about direct deliveries to Ukraine. You can also deliver those F-16s to Poland, which then transfers its MiG-29s to Ukraine. The Netherlands is already training Polish pilots. Politico claimed at the end of January that Ukraine already wants to have fifty experienced fighter pilots practice with the F-16, pending a concrete decision (which would then come months later). It would also have turned to private companies for such training.
Meanwhile, Biden has reached out by saying “no” to the escalating F-16, but yes to the rapidly deliverable GLSDB bomb missile. It shoots 150 kilometers away, with great precision. That is twice as far as the current HIMARS missiles, which already gave the Russians nightmares.
Patriots don’t work against Russian cruise missiles
You could also operate a few planes from Romania in the Black Sea. Those are international waters, from which you can control Russian cruise missiles, which are now being fired from ships at Ukrainian targets. The Patriot anti-aircraft missiles that Ukraine is already receiving from the West do not work against this, because such cruise missiles and drones fly very low, under the Patriot.
It is, of course, not a black and white debate. You could deploy a mix of anti-aircraft assets and aircraft. The Ukrainian maneuver war could be directed by aircraft. That also has its advantages.