Content:
  1. "Thousands of pilots trained annually in the US"
  2. "F-16s will remain undetected by the enemy"
  3. "A strike on a NATO country or nuclear weapon use would corner Putin"
  4. "Russians have learned and become more skilled"
  5. "The West won't trade social benefits for weapons"

The training of an F-16 pilot is a long and expensive process. The United States has a queue of applicants from other countries. However, delays for Ukraine are more about political will than technical limitations.

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These planes are worth the wait – F-16s have advantages that Russian pilots cannot counter. This will allow the Defense Forces to control Ukrainian airspace successfully. In the beginning, it might only be certain zones of dominance, warns retired US Air Force Colonel Jeffrey Fischer in an interview with LIGA.net.

Fischer has 30 years of experience, having participated in NATO operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He served at the US Air Force headquarters, was a senior advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, a defense attaché at the US Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, and an assistant commander of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters.

As a senior navigator, he logged over 1800 hours, including 400 hours in combat or combat support.

In an interview with LIGA.net, Fischer discusses whether F-16s can impact the battlefield, what can help secure aircraft and crews, and why Russian A-50 pilots would rather injure themselves than fly missions over Ukraine.

"Thousands of pilots trained annually in the US"

- Ukrainian pilots have been training on F-16s since August 2023. Dozens are still training in the US and Europe. How challenging is it to train a good pilot?

- The US Air Force adopts a phased approach. Initially, pilots are taught basic aviation skills. Then, they are trained to operate specific types of aircraft – cargo airplanes, transporter planes, fighters, bombers, etc. From start to finish, it takes one and a half to two years and costs $1-3 million. It's not easy. It takes a long time, and it costs millions of dollars.

Therefore, the US requires trained pilots to serve in the Air Force for an additional 10-12 years to compensate for the investment. The US is also responsible for training pilots for other countries. Overall, several thousand pilots are trained annually.

- F-16s may have been in the skies over Ukraine for some time. Why do you think planes have become such a red line for Joe Biden's administration to cross? What is so special about them compared to Atacams, Patriots, Abrams, or Himmers?

- To be fair, I wish we knew the answer. I don't think that the United States government is being too forthcoming on that. We just know that the F-16s have been significantly delayed.

And let's be clear, the United States has not offered any F-16s. They've all been offered by NATO. So clearly something is going on in the National Security Council and back-channel discussions with Russia that gives the Biden administration some significant fear that the F-16s are going to be seen by Russia as completely escalatory.

It was good to see the Biden administration come forward and allow ATACAMS to strike into Russia now, although I would argue that it's probably still too limited. I think that if the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian General Staff believe strategically that something is a viable target in Russia, wherever that may be, and Russia is challenging the existential existence of Ukraine, they should have the ability to strike that target.

"F-16s will remain undetected by the enemy"

- Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium plan to send more than sixteen F-16s to Ukraine this summer. American officials have said they don't expect the F-16s to change the rules on the battlefield. What can several dozen F-16s do in the skies over Ukraine?

- I'm not going to say that they're a wonder weapon, but I would tell you that I think they're going to have a significant impact on the war. It's not just the F-16s. I think we have to remember that this is a battle space and the support aircraft are going to be critical. Ukraine is also going to get Saab 340 AEWs and that is going to give an air battle picture. It's going to really bolster the capability of the F-16.

When F-16s enter the combat zone, they will remain undetected by the enemy thanks to long-range radar aircraft. This allows for surprise attacks.

I wouldn't say all of Ukraine is going to have air superiority, but I think there will be pockets of air superiority created by the F-16.

- How many of these planes do the allies have and could theoretically give to Ukraine?

- The limited number of planes being offered isn’t due to a lack of aircraft (as of 2023, the F-16 is the world’s most widespread fixed-wing fighter in service, with 2145 in operation. – Ed.), but due to political decisions.

Ukraine is promised 60 aircraft. You probably want at least two pilots for every airplane. Kyiv claims that they have 30 pilots that are ready to go. As you know, Ukraine needs 120 F-16 pilots now. And graduating six or eight or 10 at a time over eight months is not going to cut it.

The United States is just not ponying up the F-16 slots for these guys to go, which I think is a little far-fetched. When Ukraine is at war and other nations are at peace, it's hard to understand how the prioritization works in the F-16 training pipeline when nations like Bulgaria, Slovakia, or other nations that fly the F-16 somehow get priority.

Військовий пілот Джеффрі Фішер (Фото: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)
Military pilot Jeffrey Fischer (Photo: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)

- What could be the additional military solution to stop Russian guided bomb attacks on Ukrainian positions?

- If you can’t stop the bomb from falling or shoot down the carrier aircraft, find a way to destroy them at some stage before the attack. Before the plane drops the bomb, it needs to be transported from storage and loaded onto the plane.

This raises the question of why Ukraine cannot use ATACMS to attack military targets in Russia. A great example of why something is very wrong with Western restrictions. The simplest way to break the guided bombs kill chain is to destroy storage sites.

- The U.S. has dozens of retired pilots ready to fly F-16s in Ukraine, says USAF Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Hampton. The idea of using experienced pilots has been raised at a high level, but Washington has not made a decision. What is the administration afraid of?

- Dan mentioned that he and other pilots consider working as mercenaries in Ukraine. I can't speak for him. He's kind of an off-the-grid guy.

If I were a pilot heading to Ukraine, I would hesitate – not out of fear of Russians or doubts about Ukraine's success, but because the U.S. plans to make pilots in Ukraine fight with one hand tied behind their backs. When Russian planes can operate freely on their side of the border, while Ukraine can't do anything about it, it's an unfair advantage. If I'm going to risk my life, I want a fair fight.

"A strike on a NATO country or nuclear weapon use would corner Putin"

- The F-16 needs a protection system. These planes will be Russia's top target. How can they be protected?

- The Biden administration is afraid to send them because of Russian rhetoric about escalation. So it's clear that the Russians genuinely fear these planes.

I've heard that the planes may be based in Poland or Romania and fly to Ukraine when needed, but there's no official confirmation.

You're going to want to spread out F-16s. You're going to want to have decoy F-16s that you sort of put on ramps and let the Russians use expensive bombs and expensive targeting systems to blow up decoys.

Військовий пілот Джеффрі Фішер (Фото: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)
Military pilot Jeffrey Fischer (Photo: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)

- Russia threatens to strike NATO countries neighboring Ukraine if F-16s are based there. Could it really take that risk?

- I can tell you from my combat experience that the guy who threatens to do something is rarely the guy who does it. Announcing your actions is a bad idea unless it's a bluff.

Regarding Russia's threats against NATO or using nuclear weapons, I think both are possible but unlikely. 

A strike on a NATO country or nuclear weapon use would corner Putin. I don't think Putin wants that. He enjoys having the freedom to maneuver that NATO doesn't have. For now, he can wage a prolonged war without these drastic actions.

- Russia claims to have around 120 Su aircraft ready to use air-to-air missiles against the F-16. How do you assess the parity in Ukrainian airspace and the potential outcomes of battles between the Su and F-16?

- Comparing aircraft is a bad idea. Western air forces are designed to fight in a 30-to-1 format. It's not just the F-16; it's the AWACS, tankers, JSTARS, Global Hawk, overhead sensors, Patriot missiles, and radar systems. It's all fusing and feeding a massive air picture into the cockpit of the F-16.

The F-16 pilot has so much raw data and information before he even turns on his radar. Russia has not proven that they have the same ability to do this.

Russian AWACS planes, the A-50s, have been shot down. Russian pilots lack a comprehensive air picture. Russia thinks they have a lot of planes and a lot of air-to-air missiles and they think they're ready and prepared to take on the F-16s.

But if I had to bet, my money is going to go on the F-16s. In air combat, the plane with the speed, maneuverability, and data advantage usually wins.

Even Russia's most advanced Su-57, if it enters a fight with the F-16 from a disadvantageous position, won't gain the upper hand.

"Russians have learned and become more skilled"

- Given the Russian planes shot down by Ukraine, how do you assess Russian aviation now?

- We saw the drone that landed on the A-50. If you're an A-50 crew, like you're a guy who's going to fly on an A-50, you probably don't want to go fly right now. If you're a Russian A-50 crew member, you're either faking being sick or you're breaking your own leg or you're finding reasons not to go up in the air because for some reason you're getting shot down, whether it's Russian missiles or Ukrainian missiles. It really doesn't matter.

But the challenge or the thing that you always have to be aware of, humans learn. At the beginning of the war, Russia's initial actions in this war were horrible. But war is a good teacher.

The air force is learning too. It will become harder to shoot down A-50s. Ukraine has the advantage now, but it's crucial to continue punishing Russia before it adapts and strikes with new tactics.

This is one reason why many are frustrated with the Biden administration — its fear of escalation constantly gives Russians time to learn. Had the West provided overwhelming support at the beginning, instead of a phased approach, Russians wouldn't have adapted. Now you're stuck fighting a stronger enemy because you didn't capitalize on their initial weaknesses.

Джеффрі Фішер і конгресмен Стівен Лінч у Косово під час інспекції сил США при НАТО KFOR (Фото: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)
Jeffrey Fischer and Congressman Stephen Lynch in Kosovo during an inspection of US forces at NATO KFOR (Photo: Facebook/Col. Jeffrey H Fischer, Author)

"The West won't trade social benefits for weapons"

- Ukraine has crossed all of Russia's red lines with its attacks. Do you think there will be a moment when the U.S. and other allies will give Ukraine all the weapons we need to win? And if so, when or under what conditions could this happen?

- I hope so. The West is not positioned to give Ukraine everything it needs immediately, even if it wanted to right now. It can't. And that's because the United States and Europe, neither of their economies are on a wartime footing where you've got Russia right now.

Now, Russia's economy could collapse as a result, because eventually it can't invest so heavily in its weapons production without literally just destroying its economy over time. But who knows how long it will last?

Weapons in Europe are expensive compared to Russian or Iranian ones due to high labor and material costs. The European nations invested heavily in social programs because they really believed that the war dividends of the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90s meant that there would never be war again. And now they're realizing that's not the case.

They already have 40-60% tax rates and can't increase them. They don't have budgets for wartime footing. And more importantly, most of the people in these nations are not going to be really welcome to the idea of taking away social programs to invest in weapons.

The U.S. is in a slightly better situation, but not much. Until populations are convinced to move to wartime footing and make sacrifices, I don't know if such help will come.

- What scenarios do you see on the battlefield in the next one to two years?

- I hope that when Ukraine receives a significant number of F-16s and French Mirage 2000s, the Ukrainian forces will achieve air superiority. The ground forces will stabilize the front and coordinate for an offensive. You can have air superiority but still struggle on the ground. Skill is needed to capitalize on the synergy effect.

The war could drag on further without a breakthrough. I hope the Ukrainian command is learning from its mistakes and making the right conclusions. The Ukrainian army learns well.

- What about the war's duration?

- As our generals say, if a war lasts more than six months, it can last for years. I don't see signs of it ending soon.

Read also: How Russia's war against Ukraine triggered a global race in air defense and missile defense systems