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Clipped wings, or how Kremlin propaganda is using Ukraine's multirole combat aircraft, which it does not yet have

 fot. PAP/EPA /Jan Langhaug
fot. PAP/EPA /Jan Langhaug

The first Danish F-16 Fighting Falcons are expected to arrive in Ukraine in June or July. Poland's neighbour has high hopes for these multirole fighters. On the other hand, Western experts emphasize that the Falcons in Ukrainian skies will not be a game changer, and that maintaining them will be a huge challenge. But Russia seems to be seriously concerned. In recent days, the Kremlin-controlled mass media have been flooded with articles suggesting that they have already suffered a humiliating defeat, despite the fact that the Falcons with the painted trident have not yet taken to the skies. And in the process, they have unleashed World War III.

Currently, Kyiv has dozens of Soviet-era MIG-29 and SU-24 fighters at its disposal. This gives Russia a significant advantage in air combat, as it uses the much more modern SU-35 fighter jets, but not exclusively. This is why, as soon as the invasion of Ukraine began, the diplomacy of the invaded country began to seek the acquisition of F-16s—fourth-generation multirole fighters.

For the first few months, these efforts were a cry in the wilderness—the US ruled out the possibility of transferring the Falcons to Ukraine—not just from the US arsenal, but from any country that had them in its combat fleet. It was only in the spring of 2023 that the White House agreed to make these fighters available to Ukraine. In July 2023, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, a coalition of countries was formed to ensure that the F-16s would be used in Ukraine. Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium are donating the aircraft (85 in total), while Poland, the UK, Romania, Portugal, Sweden, Canada and Luxembourg will train pilots and ground crew as well as maintain subsequent servicing of the jets. Training has already taken place in Tucson, Arizona (USA).

Experts, and not the Russian ones—we will discuss them later—emphasise that the appearance of the Falcons in the skies over Ukraine will not be enough to repel the invasion. But they could make a big difference. With their ability to intercept cruise missiles, the F-16s will be an invaluable addition to Ukraine's ineffective air defences. They will support Ukrainian ground operations while making it more difficult for Russians to cover their own forces on the ground. They can be adapted to carry anti-radiation, air-to-air tracking and manoeuvring missiles such as the Storm Shadow, as well as small bombs. So far, the condition of their deployment to Ukraine is that they will only operate over the country's autonomous territory, but they still have the capability to hit targets 100 km away.    

Unsurprisingly, in the weeks leading up to the arrival of the first of these fighters in Ukraine, the Russian government and its propaganda amplifiers, in explaining the world to both its own people and the international community, have resorted to narratives vividly reminiscent of those associated with the equipping of Ukraine with advanced Western tanks last year. We well remember the reports of Leopard tanks being destroyed or disabled in the Ukrainian mud before they even got there. In the autumn of 2023, Russian diplomacy, backed by the propaganda machine, launched an intensive campaign that equipping the Ukrainian armed forces with Leopards or Abrams was tantamount to the outbreak of World War III and the beginning of a nuclear conflict. Now they are doing exactly the same thing.

As Vladimir Putin said, if F-16s appear in the skies over Ukraine, Russia would regard them as carrying nuclear weapons. And it would attack the airports from which they take off. His words were echoed by the Russian Foreign Ministry: "Regardless of the specific modification in which these aircraft are delivered, we will consider them to be carriers of nuclear weapons, and we will consider this step by the United States and NATO to be a deliberate provocation," reads a communiqué from 6 May 2024. And it continues: "NATO is bringing the war in Ukraine closer to the point where it will reach critical mass and explode. The manipulation inherent in the claim that NATO is escalating the war in Ukraine to the level of a nuclear conflict is that while the F-16 can be adapted to carry nuclear missiles, this does not bring anything new to the theatre of war. The SU-24 fighters that Ukraine already has can also be modified for this purpose. This, by the way, is what Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has already done and boasted about in August 2022. It is worth remembering that although Ukraine was the world's third nuclear power and had inherited 5,800 nuclear warheads from the USSR, it has not had any since the early 1990s. It gave them up in exchange for the security guarantees of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994. In 2014, these guarantees turned out to be worthless. Another reckless rhetoric presented by Putin and spread by Russian propaganda is the claim that Ukrainian F-16s will have to operate from airfields in Poland and Romania. This would be tantamount to extending the conflict to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries.

It is true that the Falcons are much more delicate and demanding than the Soviet-designed aircraft, and since the start of discussions about handing them over to Ukraine there have been many doubts about the country's ability to provide adequate protection, maintenance and infrastructure. For example, runways for these aircraft must be level, smooth and clean (not covered with debris), which is a difficult requirement to meet in a country that is regularly bombed. It is worth remembering, however, that Ukraine has gone to great lengths in recent months to ensure that these valuable acquisitions can operate relatively safely on its territory. According to Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Illa Yevlash, the aircraft will be dispersed and stored in underground and above-ground hangars that are resistant to missile attack. To confuse the enemy, mock-ups of the Falcons will also be used.

In addition to the crews, technical personnel will be trained in Denmark and Romania to carry out the ongoing maintenance of the fighters. The more serious training will take place outside Ukraine, possibly at the air bases in Lask and Krzesiny or in Mielec in Poland. Ukrainian technicians are also preparing to hide the planes from Russian radars and satellites. Finally, it is not true that the F-16s would not be able to take off or land in Ukraine. Mariusz Cielma, editor-in-chief of Nowa Technika Wojskowa (New Military Technology), told the Polish Press Agency: "Ukrainian aviation in wartime relies on small, mobile teams that have to manoeuvre and use public roads. This is not unusual, F-16s take off from roads in Taiwan, for example. In fact, all they need is about 2 km of straight, well-maintained tarmac and the right equipment to ensure safe flight operations. So, the claim that the Falcons will take off from Polish and Romanian airfields is just another attempt to justify the narrative that the 'spec operation' in Ukraine is a NATO-enforced confrontation between Russia and the entire Alliance.

At the end of March 2024, Putin said that even if the West delivers F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, they will not be able to change anything on the battlefield and will be destroyed like the other equipment delivered to Kyiv. Aviation historian Nikolai Bodrikin felt obliged to clarify his words and explain to the Russian public what will happen to these F-16s.
In a story published on Sputnik on 28 March 2024, he explained that the F-16 is a technological relic. It is not a challenge for Russian fighters. On the other hand, what is lethal for them are all the anti-aircraft systems: the S-200, the S-300, the S-400 and, finally, the S-500. Then there are the Sosna-R and Pancyr batteries and even the portable Verba sets. The list leads to a punch line—the claim that the Ukrainians will use the Falcons as kamikazes, because that is the only way to use these machines in a reasonably effective way.
So, after two-and-a-half years of efforts by politicians, training of pilots and technical teams, construction of stealth and missile-proof hangars, the Ukrainians would use these long-awaited machines, each worth almost USD 70 million, to carry out several suicide attacks.

Chances are slim that this narrative, which undermines Bodrikin's authority as an expert, will be accepted by the Western public. Perhaps someone will recall that he once 'proved' that the Apollo 11 mission was a hoax. His voice is unlikely to make the Ukrainians look so wasteful that it would be a shame to hand over the F-16s. But the Russian public is capable of absorbing a lot, and it is likely that a large part of Russian society has come to believe that although Ukraine has yet to put a single Falcon into combat, formally speaking they have already all been shot down.

31 Mai 2024

Grzegorz Rutke
Footnotes (last modified 31 Mai 2024):