Could F-16 jets turn the tide for Ukraine?

Col. Stephen Ganyard weighs in on calls for boosted air presence.

ByABC News
February 20, 2023, 2:23 PM

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that has followed approaches its one-year mark, some U.S. officials are pushing the federal government and other allies to bolster Ukrainian forces' weapons.

On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz that the Biden administration needed to send F-16 jets to Ukraine and train their pilots. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who appeared separately on "This Week," didn't say whether F-16s had been approved but noted that proper training for the Ukrainians also was important.

PHOTO: A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over Afghanistan, March 17, 2020.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over Afghanistan, March 17, 2020.
Tech. Sgt. Matthew Lotz/U.S. Air Forces Central Command

ABC News contributor and former State Department official Col. Stephen Ganyard spoke with "Start Here" Monday and weighed in on the debate over the jets and how they could affect the war.

START HERE: Col. Ganyard, can you just tell us about F-16s and what kind of difference they would make in this conflict?

COL. STEPHEN GANYARD: Well, I guess there are two things to think about here, Brad. One is, what is the political theater that's going on. And part of that is what Sen. Graham is participating in, and that is diplomats and politicians trying to hold NATO together and show a united front.

That is not exactly what the Ukrainians need. The F-16s are very complex airplanes. It takes a long time to train not only the crews, but the maintainers. It takes a huge supply chain. It takes weapons that they don't have. And so really what's going on here is you have two efforts. One is how do we keep the Ukrainians from being overrun by the Russians? What are the kinds of weapons they really need versus what is the political theater going on in NATO to show NATO coherence and a united front against Russian aggression.

START HERE: What are the Ukrainians asking for? I feel like since the early days of this war, the Ukrainians have been saying, "Hey, we need more in the skies." That's where this war is going to be won or lost.

GANYARD: They do. But the problem is with an F-16, if you aren't going to give the F-16 a weapon that the Ukrainians can actually employ or would be useful, then they really aren't what the Ukrainians need. So right now, they actually have a pretty darn good air defense system that's glued together and sort of a Rube Goldberg way of I think there are at least seven or eight different surface-to-air missile systems that have been linked together. So you have all these countries that had their own individual surface-to-air missile systems. Those are doing a very good job, frankly, of bringing down cruise missiles and taking care of the threat in the sky.

So the question is: What would you need F-16s for? What the Ukrainians really need is the ability to strike deep behind Russian lines and take out their supply caches to be able to prevent them from having the things that you need to wage war. So the best way to stop the Russians is to take away the kind of things they need, like fuel, like ammunition and hit them in the rear areas. But the administration's been very clear they don't want to accelerate or at least further inflame what they think would happen if they were given weapons out beyond about 100 miles.

PHOTO: Ukrainian soldiers fire a Pion artillery system at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 16, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a Pion artillery system at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 16, 2022.
Libkos/AP, FILE

START HERE: That's interesting. The long range missiles, we don't know if they’re going forward with. Those could be seen as more adversarial, even more escalatory than the planes keeping watch over Ukraine's sovereign skies.

Col. Ganyard, can we turn our attention not from sort of the U.S.-Ukraine alliance, but this alliance between Russia and China? I mean, Russia seems to very much be on the front foot at this point in the war. We've heard that China might sort of be giving more material aid to Russia. What could that look like and what kind of impact do you think that has?

GANYARD: It seems that there's some intelligence out there that suggests that the Chinese are about to sign some sort of a deal to provide military weapons to Russia. Now, we know that they've been skirting the sanctions with other things other than military capability. But this is something that would obviously concern not only Ukraine, but NATO, the U.S. in particular if the Chinese were to support them. Now, what could they do? Remember that most of the Soviet Union exported its weapons to China early on. And so in a lot of ways, the Chinese have reverse engineered old Soviet tech that they can now sell back to the Russians, and that may be one way to help them. But the real question here is, are the Chinese willing and ready to cross that diplomatic bridge and burn it behind them by supplying weapons to the Russians that would be useful in a military conflict?

START HERE: How big of a deal is it? I mean, we provide stuff to Ukraine. Is that how big of a deal is if China decides to cross that diplomatic bridge, as you called it?

GANYARD: I don't think it's that big a deal other than the perception. But remember what's going on here, Brad, we've talked about this for months, is that the Chinese [government] are slowly, slowly trying to make Russia a vassal state. Russia has things that China needs: food security, energy security, extractive. So no doubt there are all sorts of good deals.

START HERE: Like the way the Russians use all these Eastern European countries is kind of like, 'Hey, you do what we want.' You're saying China can do that to the entire Russian Federation?

GANYARD: Right. China has things that Putin wants and if China says, "OK, you're going to sell your oil to us at a 20% discount for the next ten years." That's a good deal. Putin comes back and says, "Well, I need something else." Well, you can sell us iron ore extractives for the next ten years at a 30% discount. So there are all sorts of ways that the Chinese can extract long-term economic security out of the Russians by playing ball with them early on.

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