Rishi Sunak has pledged to provide a new level of air support
Just as wealth breeds wealth, success breeds success. At each stage of the Ukraine war, the unexpected battlefield successes of the Ukrainian armed forces have eroded the taboos among the country’s Western backers as to which sophisticated weapons systems they are willing to provide for use against the Russian invader.
The long-running debate over whether Ukraine should be gifted Western tanks, as well as the delivery of HIMARS long-range missiles and PATRIOT air defence systems, is almost forgotten now. Respectively, these advances allowed the Ukrainian army to strike Russian troops and equipment far behind the front lines, and to defend Kyiv from even Russia’s most advanced supersonic missile barrages. The latest milestone seems to have been reached in the decision of Western powers to grant Ukraine’s longstanding wish for modern jet aircraft.
Yesterday, a Downing Street spokesperson announced that “The Prime Minister and Prime Minister Rutte agreed they would work to build [an] international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, supporting with everything from training to procuring F16 jets.” This follows on from Emmanuel Macron’s recent declaration that there is “no taboo” about training Ukrainian pilots on Western aircraft.
Coupled with the long-range air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles given to Ukraine by both Britain and France (under their French name of SCALP missiles), this new capability provided to the Ukrainian Air Force, which has thus far exceeded initial expectations, will further challenge Russia’s already lacklustre military performance.
As the RUSI analyst Jack Watling observed in a recent briefing, the introduction of Storm Shadow will allow the Ukrainians to leapfrog Russia’s recent tactical adaptation to the threat posed by ground-based missile systems, potentially eroding its vast superiority in artillery firepower. But the defensive potential of the proposed new fleet of Western jets is perhaps as important as the offensive capacity it affords. As Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba recently wrote in a plea for jets in Foreign Policy, “F-16s will operate as one combined system with ground-based air defence, allowing us to shoot down Russian missiles long before they kill someone or destroy another energy facility.”
Over the course of the war, Ukraine has already successfully denied Russia the air superiority that was assumed as a given at the conflict’s start, preventing Moscow from repeating America’s Shock and Awe military approach. Russia’s jets are increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian air defences on the ground, and Western fast air defences may enable Ukraine to consolidate its superiority above the battlefield. But, as ever, quantity has a quality all of its own. As Ukraine’s defence ministry cautioned to the local broadcasting outlet Hromadske, a handful of new jets will not win the war, but “2-3 F-16 squadrons [around 30 aircraft] today would significantly affect the course of hostilities — it would completely change the situation on the front.”
But the limits of Western generosity are as yet unclear. European powers have tended to break the initial taboos on arms deliveries, leaving the more cautious Biden administration to fill the quantity shortfall, but Biden has already stated the US will not provide Ukraine with F16s. Whether or not the new European commitment will erode the American President’s natural caution remains to be seen: either way, Russia’s faltering path to victory looks ever more distant.