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Supplying Ukraine with US-made Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters would be a much better option than older Typhoons from the inventory of the Royal Air Force (RAF), a former senior commander in the service has said.

In an interview with the UK’s Forces TV on 10 February 2023, Air Marshal Greg Bagwell (rtd), who previously served as the RAF’s Deputy Commander (Operations), spoke in response to the surprise visit to the UK on 8 February 2023 by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who used the opportunity to urge the UK to supply fighters to Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion there.

Acknowledging that the UK’s only viable option would be to offer Ukraine its older Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons, of which around two dozen or so remain in service and which are due to be retired in 2025, Bagwell remarked of the aircraft, “There’s not many of them and they are a little bit out of date in terms of their support, but that’s about the only thing we’ve got spare – and I use that word advisedly because there’s almost nothing spare right now. We do need to worry about ‘What if Russia decides to do something else and is NATO ready and what is our part in a NATO defence?’, so we can’t afford to give everything away.”

Romanian F-16s (Photo: Romanian MoD)

However, the UK offering Ukraine Tranche 1 Typhoons would “come with a huge challenge”, Bagwell warned. “You’re going to have to train people up, train the maintainers, provide spares packages. That aircraft has been going out of service now for many years. We keep bringing it back from the dead, but now it’s going once again, which means we’ve stopped developing the software; we’ve stopped the supply chain of certain spares and avionics. And my personal view is it’s not the right aircraft because there aren’t enough.”

The right choice of fighter for Ukraine, Bagwell argued, “needs to be something like an F-16. There are thousands of those in the world; they’re still being built; they’ll be upgradeable for many years; they can carry all the modern weapon systems that other aircraft can – same as the F-35, or even the F-22 for that matter.”

Noting that the Typhoon has very strong air-to-air capabilities, Bagwell said, “I think one on one you might well take a Typhoon [over an F-16], but if you can get 200 [F-16s], and you know they’ve got a lifetime and a support network that will run them on for 10, 15, 20 years, that would be my preference [for Ukraine].”

Among Europe’s air forces, F-16 users Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland have either moved on to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or are in the process of doing so, which should leave a significant pool of second-hand F-16s for Ukraine. Moreover, Slovakia and Bulgaria are procuring the latest F-16V, while Romania has recently acquired second-hand F-16AM/BMs from Portugal, ensuring the F-16 as a type will operate in Central Europe for some years to come.

Another option for Ukraine would be older Saab Gripens. Of the Swedish Air Force’s current six squadrons of Gripen C/Ds, four will transition to the Gripen E while the remaining two will remain operational with their Gripen C/Ds. Although some of the retired Gripen C/Ds will be needed for spares, others could be made available to Ukraine.

Europe’s other Gripen users, the Czech Republic and Hungary, currently lease rather than own their Gripen C/D fleets, with these aircraft unlikely to become available for Ukraine in the next few years. The Czech government announced in July 2022 its intent to buy F-35s to replace its Gripens, but its lease deal will not end until 2027. Unlike the Czech Republic, Hungary will own its Gripen C/Ds when its lease deal ends in 2026 and so is likely to opt to keep them.

Peter Felstead