F-16s Won't Be a 'Game Changer' for Ukraine, Air Force's Europe Commander Says

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany (left), flies alongside a German air force Eurofighter Typhoon assigned to the 74th Tactical Air Wing over Germany, Feb. 16, 2023. (Allison Payne/U.S. Air Force)

AURORA, Colorado -- The Air Force general in charge of air and missile defense across Europe says that donated F-16 Fighting Falcons wouldn't necessarily help Ukraine win the skies in its fight against Russia.

AURORA, Colorado -- The Air Force general in charge of air and missile defense across Europe says that donated F-16 Fighting Falcons wouldn't necessarily help Ukraine win the skies in its fight against Russia.

Gen. James Hecker, the head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe as well as Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command, told Military.com on Monday evening that he's not surprised by the country's desire to have F-16s but doubts the aircraft's overall effectiveness in repelling Moscow's year-old invasion.

"I think it's going to help them a little bit," Hecker told Military.com. "I don't think it's going to be a game changer. It's not like a fifth-generation aircraft would be or anything like that."

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Hecker's comments, made during the Air and Space Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, this week, come as Ukraine surpasses the one-year mark and the country continues to ask for more military aid, including fighter jets, from the U.S. and a global coalition of allies.

Last week, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN that President Joe Biden has ruled out sending F-16s to Ukraine for now. But, notably, two Ukrainian pilots are reportedly in the U.S. undergoing an assessment to see how long it could take to train them to fly attack aircraft, including F-16s.

Hecker said he believes the overall focus should remain on helping build up Ukraine's missile defense systems,

"What I would concentrate more on is that defensive aspect, and what the countries are actually doing, which is giving them more [Integrated Air Defense Systems], so surface-to-air missiles and those kinds of things to shoot down the targets that are coming at them," Hecker said. "So, that's where I'd probably concentrate my efforts."

Many experts believed in the early days of Russia's invasion in 2022 that its air forces would quickly level Ukraine's fleet -- something that has not yet been achieved.

"I think most of us thought that that was going to be a 10-day war," Hecker told reporters. "At least, I can tell you that I thought it was going to be, but because of the will of the Ukrainian people and the lack of either side being able to get air superiority ... what you see right now is just a bunch of artillery, as well as HIMARS, pounding each other."

Ukraine began asking for more modern F-15 Eagle and F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. and western allies shortly after Russia's invasion. The country's air force insisted the jets could be quickly pushed into the fight against Russia, saying Ukrainian "pilots can learn to fly these with just 2-3 weeks of training."

But experts previously told Military.com that providing those high-tech aircraft would ultimately create more problems than solutions for the U.S. and Ukraine.

The U.S. is the largest operator of the F-15 and F-16, which have been used in numerous conflicts in recent decades. They were developed for lightning fast speed and durability in a variety of weather environments and are armed with high-tech radar and long-range missiles.

But giving those aircraft to Ukraine isn't a simple task. Along with the necessary pilot training, providing Ukraine with F-15s and F-16s would mean any donor nation would also need to supply an abundance of parts, maintenance crews to train their military, and runway preparation.

Hecker notes it's not an unreasonable ask from Ukraine, especially because of the fight it has faced this past year.

"You know, for them to ask, I would expect nothing less," Hecker told Military.com. "If I was in their shoes, I would be asking for it."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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