Eagles above the Battlefield: The Netherlands Readies F-16s for Ukraine, amidst the Shadow of the S-400

F-16 vs S-400
F-16 vs S-400

The battlefront in Ukraine that lost the attention of the global media at the onset of the war between Israel and Hamas, suddenly grabbed the headlines once again, as the involvement of the US-made fighter jets does not seem to remain in the hypothetical realm any more.

If the Dutch government is going to stick to its daring initiative, the skies above Ukraine - and Russia for that matter too - are poised for a potential showdown in the air, in the next few months.

On December 22nd, the Dutch government headed by Mark Rutte, the acting prime minister, announced the bold move: the Dutch authorities want to deliver 18 F-16 Falcon fighter jets to the beleaguered Ukrainian government to defend its skies from relentless Russian attacks that take place in multiple forms - almost on daily basis.

Although the decision is yet to be finalized - and to be blessed by the US, the country of origin of the state-of-the-art fighter jets - it was a dramatic escalation in the Western military assistance.

If F-16 are to be airborne in the Ukrainian skies, they will be the focus of the formidable Russian S-400 air defense system on the ground. The looming threat against the F-16 fighter jets from the latter and the attempts made by the former to wriggle out of risky domains are going to attract defense analysts to a new military theater in droves.

The heavy use of F-16s in the war against Hamas by the Israeli Defense Forces, IDF, elevated the fearsome reputation of the aircraft to new heights: the breathtakingly-potent versatility is certainly without a match; not only can she carry missile and bombs, but also can fire canons at aircrafts, ground targets and even radar installations.

Ukrainians have been demanding the F-16s since the early stages of the conflict, only to be turned down by the US, fearing a direct conflict between Russia and the NATO. With the latest encouraging news, the Ukrainians believe that they can tip the scales against their nemesis, Russia, by taking on their modern fighter jests, air defense systems and even missile launching sites.

Military analysts, however, believe it is easier said than done. They hold the view that Russia is not Hamas. As for the latter, there was no air defense system to speak of and the F-16s never faced a significant challenge from the ground. In addition, Israeli fighter pilots are well trained and their attention to detail is without a match; you hardly hear about an accident in the air involving Israeli fighter jets, perhaps as they are in the fighting mode throughout the year by default.

Russia's S-400 system, nicknamed "Triumf," stands sentinel, casting a long shadow over the air dominance anticipated with the arrival of F-16s. The fact that it has been acquired even by a major NATO member speaks for itself: Turkey bought the S-400 system, much to the irritation of major NATO members that in turn deprived the former acquiring F-35 stealth fighter jets from the US.

In addition, in an ironic geo-political twist, both China and India have bought the system for their corresponding air defense tasks, while being literally at war for long months. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown an interest in acquiring them too, but stopped short of buying them as yet, not to annoy their ally, the US.

In this context, the Ukrainian theatre may become a potential market place for showing off rival weapons systems for prospective buyers, although there are undeniable risks for both stakeholders of the respective weapons.

Despite the S-400's bite, the potential benefits of the F-16s remain undeniable. According to independent analysts, they could provide much-needed air superiority, enabling Ukraine to more effectively counter Russian aerial assaults and support ground operations. This, in turn, could boost morale and potentially even shift the momentum of the war, pushing Russia to reconsider its objectives. An outright victory, however, they believe is way off.

The path to Ukrainian skies for these F-16s, however, remains riddled with numerous obstacles. Beyond export permits and pilot training, the S-400 adds another layer of complexity that needs to be overcome to take the move beyond the aspiration stage: suppressing or evading its detection and engagement capabilities will be crucial for the F-16s' survival and effectiveness; techniques like electronic warfare, low-altitude flight paths, and coordinated attacks are some form of counter measures that could be used to mitigate the threats to the fighter jets in questions - and their reputation.

Ultimately, the decision to provide F-16s is a gamble, perhaps the last one that could bring about a watershed moment, if the plans by the NATO come to fruition exactly as envisioned. The NATO has to balance the potential gains against the risk of escalation to a point of no-return.

Russia has repeatedly warned against supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine, threatening severe consequences. Engaging in a high-stakes aerial cat-and-mouse game with the S-400 adds another layer of tension to an already volatile situation.

When the idea of deployment of F-16s was first discussed in the corridors of power of the NATO, President Putin famously said that Russia would find a way around to counter them, without specifying what it is. He is also on record saying that Patriot air defense system, which has already been deployed in Ukraine by the US, was 'too old' to be taken seriously by Russia.

The defiant roar of F-16s over Ukraine amidst the S-400's watchful gaze, reminds everyone of the complex chessboard on which this conflict unfolds. The outcome of this aerial dance remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: the skies above Ukraine are about to become a theater of high-stakes drama, with the fate of nations hanging in the balance.

As far as the year 2024 is concerned, there is not a single sign that implies the growing chasm between the US and Russia showing any reversal.

With the screw of sanctions being tightened on regular basis, Russia could further weaponize the oil and gas supply by cutting down on the output with the blessings of the OPEC+ of which it is a major player - in retaliation.

In this context, President Putin's impromptu visit to the Middle East recently to the discuss the equation of oil supply and price, among few other things that have not been disclosed, may be a harbingers of bad news to come, as far as the energy markets are concerned.

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