Will Joe Biden's delivery of F-16 fighter jets help Ukraine regain the upper hand? We will have to wait until autumn before Ukrainian pilots are trained.
Romania is the latest country to start training F-16 fighter pilots, in particular for the Ukrainian military. Bucharest has made the announcement. For months, Ukraine has been saying that it needs this American aircraft, the most widely used in the world, to fight the Russian invasion. And on 19 May, after numerous refusals, Joe Biden gave the go-ahead for the delivery of combat aircraft to Ukraine, including F-16s.
Air force imbalance
But why was Volodymyr Zelensky so desperate for these aircraft? Kyiv is finding it hard to assert itself in the air, and the F-16s would enable it to regain control of the skies and provide air support for ground troops. According to the military analysis website, Global Firepower, Ukraine had fewer than 190 operational aircraft at the beginning of January, compared with more than 2,000 for Russia.
"When you're manoeuvring," explains Jean Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institute for International Relations and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), "you might be bombarding enemy forces with artillery. You see them manoeuvre. And the usefulness of these fighter planes is that they can target the Russian forces manoeuvring opposite."
Léo Péria-Peigné, a researcher at the Institute for International Relations Centre for Security Studies (IFRI), adds there are three main ways of using the F-16s: "For ground support," he says. "To attack the Russians who are attacking; or to support a Ukrainian attack in order to intercept fighter aircraft that might come into Ukrainian airspace. Furthermore, even possibly use certain munitions to intercept missiles and drones that threaten sensitive points."
Training: a key factor that will take time
Since the US endorsement, several other countries have been seeking to help Ukraine train its F-16 pilots.
At the end of May, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, indicated that Poland had already begun to do this and that several countries were ready to supply Ukraine with these fighter jets.
The Netherlands is planning to start training Ukrainian F-16 pilots as early as this summer.
Denmark is also preparing to train pilots on its territory. Pilot training, and how long it will take, is a key issue:
"Pilots are part of the problem," says Léo Péria-Peigné. "Of course, you have to train the ground staff, i.e. the mechanics. However, you also have to integrate the system and its weapons into what we call the 'friend-or-foe' identification system. It is a crucial issue aimed at ensuring that the Ukrainian air defence does not fire on sight and fires according to the signatures they have on the radar. It's also to ensure it does not fire on its own aircraft.
"Despite being 40 or 50 years old, we're dealing with a system that is still complex. All these factors mean that a four-month integration period does not seem absurd. There are often two pilots or even two complete teams per aircraft. You have a pilot on board, between ten and 20 mechanics at least, plus nozzles and ground technicians who take care of the rest."
"It's also pilots training other pilots," adds Jean Pierre Maulny. "So, we need to free up time in the Western armies to train Ukrainian pilots."
Ukraine and its allies hope these jets, in service since the end of the 1970s, will mark a turning point in this war. The delivery of the F-16s, and the training of Ukrainian military personnel on these aircraft, will be at the heart of the NATO summit in Vilnius on 11 and 12 July.