F-16 fighters and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) long-range munitions would certainly benefit Ukraine. The real question is whether these weapons could have – and still can – transform the Ukrainian counteroffensive into a decisive victory.
It’s natural that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked for ATACMS, a request that the Biden administration is considering but has yet to provide. With a range of 300 kilometers (190 miles), these GPS-guided weapons would extend Ukraine’s strike capability beyond that of land-based High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rockets (50 miles) and air-launched Storm Shadow missiles (155 miles). They would enable more distant targeting of supply depots and headquarters as well as vital bridges, especially those connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland.
Similarly, F-16s would provide a sorely needed boost to Ukraine’s numerically and technologically disadvantaged air force. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have pledged as many as 73 F-16s, though training pilots and ground crews mean the aircraft won’t be fully operational until at least next year.
But whether they would turn Ukraine’s grinding advance into a crushing victory is a different matter. First and foremost, the fundamental challenge for the counteroffensive was never a lack of airpower or long-range munitions. It’s simply that the operation was a very difficult proposition from the start. A smaller army is attempting to eject a bigger army that had ample warning an attack was coming and had months to prepare fortifications that are miles deep.
In some locations, Ukrainians report encountering five mines per square meter, an area the size of a bath towel. When Ukrainian armor bogs down in the minefields, the defenders hit them with artillery and attack helicopters. This scenario has been known for more than a century, from the Somme and the Hindenburg Line to Kursk and El Alamein. Even when those offensives succeeded, it was only after a long and bloody effort.
Technology can help, as tanks did break the trench deadlock in World War I. But technology is not a panacea. ATACMS is a formidable rocket, but it won’t clear minefields. A few dozen F-16s will be useful, especially if they’re armed with long-range air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles such as the US AIM-120 AMRAAM. But they will have to operate in the face of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles, as well as cutting-edge Su-35 fighters armed with air-to-air missiles that can hit targets 200 miles away.
Neither rockets nor fast jets address the problem that Ukraine’s new assault brigades face. They were expected to be proficient with using Western mobile warfare tactics and armored vehicles, despite hasty training and a lack of time to become comfortable with a new way of war. Indeed, in the event, Ukraine decided to shift from Western-style mobile warfare to a slower, more methodical strategy that relies on artillery and missiles to wear down the enemy. By late August, that had achieved some incremental success.
Attributing a lack of swifter success to a lack of advanced weapons misses the fact that Russia has already encountered an array of Western weapons, including HIMARS rockets, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) glide bombs, Leopard tanks and Bradley troop carriers. Some have proven quite effective, but the Russian military hasn’t collapsed as it did in 1917. Instead, it did what armies always do. It adapted, such as by moving installations out of artillery range and jamming GPS guidance signals for smart bombs. Even if ATACMS and F-16s were available right now, Russia would eventually find a way to mitigate at least some of their impact.
This doesn’t mean that the West shouldn’t send more and better weapons to Ukraine. To defeat the Russian invasion, Ukraine will need a large and well-equipped air force, and that means Western fighters such as the F-16 and Sweden’s Gripen. To counteract superior Russian numbers, Ukraine will need long-range weapons such as ATACMS. But Ukraine and the West also need to prioritize the equipment most needed for short-term progress. Right now, the most valuable item might not be missiles or jets, but simple gear to clear minefields.
New arms should be seen as incrementally boosting Ukrainian military power, rather than decisive instruments in themselves. Pinning hopes on miracle weapons only deepens the disappointment when they inevitably fail to deliver miracles.