Zelenskyy says the problem with the coming F-16 fighter jets is the same one Ukraine had with the Abrams tanks


  • Ukraine is set to receive its first F-16 fighter jets from its Western partners this summer.

  • But the exact number of planes is unclear, and Zelenskyy said it likely won’t be enough.

  • He compared the problem to Ukraine’s Abrams tanks, which it only got 31 of and hasn’t used much.

Western-provided F-16 fighter jets are on their way to Ukraine and set to start flying missions later this summer.

But they may not yet be enough to make a difference on the battlefield, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy indicated in a discussion this week on what Ukraine needs, comparing the jets to the US-made Abrams tanks that Ukraine got last fall.

Asked by Fox News’ host Bret Baier at the Reagan Institute if the 31 Abrams Ukraine received as its counteroffensive was already stumbling made a difference, Zelenskyy said: “I’m not sure that such number of tanks can change the situation on the battlefield.”

Speaking in Washington, DC, Wednesday as the NATO summit was underway, he said “it’s like the dialogue about F-16.” Usefulness comes down, in some ways, to numbers and timing.

“We always wait, like my mother waited me after school,” Zelenskyy said. “This is the same but much more serious.”

“The problem with F-16,” the Ukrainian president said, “is the number and the dates.”

The Ukrainian President said that because Russia is operating so many combat aircraft “on the territory of Ukraine,” small numbers of F-16s won’t make a difference.

“Even if we will have 50, it’s nothing. They have 300. Because we are defending, we need 128,” he said, adding that unless Ukraine has that amount of F-16s, they won’t “compare with them in the sky.” He said “it will be difficult.”

Egypt F-16

Egyptian Air Force F-16 during an exercise over northern Egypt.US Air Force/Senior Airman Derek Seifert

As Zelenskky noted, his concerns about the number of F-16s coming and the timing of those deliveries mirror conversations surrounding the US-provided Abrams tanks, which arrived in Ukraine last fall. The US sent only 31 M1A1 Abrams in total, and they were delivered to Ukraine months after British and German tanks.

The Abrams is recognized as a “tank killer” and celebrated for its lethality and heavy armor. It has a fearsome reputation, particularly given its exploits in the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Experts and former tank operators have praised the Abrams’ capabilities, noting that it is far superior to any Russian tank.

But the Abrams hasn’t been able to fight the battles it was made for in Ukraine where massed armored assaults haven’t been an option and tank-on-tank combat is uncommon, it faces threats from drones, anti-tank weapons, and mines, and it is a high-profile target available in only limited numbers.

For comparison, Ukraine received about 300 US-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, nearly ten times more than the number of Abrams sent.

An Abrams tank fires during an army firepower demonstration for guests and families at Puckapunyal Range in Victoria.

An Abrams tank firing.Michael Currie/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Zelenskyy’s comments follow US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement earlier Wednesday that the first transfer of F-16 fighters to Ukraine — coming from Denmark and the Netherlands — is underway.

“Those jets will be flying in the skies of Ukraine this summer to make sure that Ukraine can continue to effectively defend itself against Russian aggression,” he said at the NATO public forum.

The arrival of the fourth-generation aircraft will be important for Ukraine and an upgrade over Kyiv’s Soviet-era air power and another marker of closer relations with the West. But there have been questions surrounding how useful the fighters will be on the battlefield and if there will be enough jets and trained pilots to make a difference. There have also been concerns they may be coming significantly later than when Ukraine needed them most.

The West has attributed the long road to getting F-16s to Ukraine to complicated logistics.

“The trouble is that for F-16s, it’s not as simple as just getting the planes and handing them over. The planes have to be reconfigured from the different air forces that they come from to make them suitable and usable for the Ukrainian Air Force,” a NATO official said to reporters at a briefing on the sidelines of the summit Thursday.

U.S. Air Force crew chiefs from the 36th Fighter Generation Squadron run a maximum power check on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Sept. 7, 2023.

A US F-16 Fighting Falcon at Osan Air Base, South Korea.US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Zachariah Lopez

The official also noted the training, logistics, and capabilities that are required to operate and defend airfields and said the yearlong process of procuring and delivering the fighters was “actually pretty good.”

“If you look at a program like this, generally, even [when an] allied country in peacetime conditions takes on a new airframe like this, it could take much, much longer to get everything into place,” the official said.

In a call with press on Thursday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged that the “ramp-up period” to get F-16s operational in Ukraine has been significant but added that the jets are expected to have an impact in the short-term and give Ukraine the capability to take back territory currently occupied by Russia.

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