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Why did the USA quickly provide a $1 billion Patriot battery to Ukraine but not a $34 million F-16?

My guess is that, since China most likely possesses “Kinzhal-like” missiles as well, it was strategically justified to determine ASAP if the US has the capabilities to intercept these dangerous missiles, making it a top priority.

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    FWIW, I fact-checked the figures quoted and they are substantially correct. The F-16 price in 1998 adjusted to 2024 dollars is about $34 million and the price of a Patriot missile battery, including missiles, is about $1.1 billion.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 15 at 2:27
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    It sounds like you're fishing for a specific answer along the lines of "the US won't send Ukraine F-16s because it doesn't want Ukraine to win". If that's the case, then I'm afraid this would need to be closed as a push question.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 17 at 8:00
  • I didn’t want to push any agenda, but I have been concerned about this question for a long time. If read between the lines, I still believe the US fears the collapse of Russia and a potential nuclear threat more than the collapse of Ukraine. It’s a case of choosing the lesser evil, so to say.
    – Fedor Omni
    Apr 17 at 8:58

7 Answers 7

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TLDR: There is nothing all that mysterious: the West has been very cautious in the weapons it gives Ukraine.

Patriots are defensive in nature, while F-16s, being fighter-bombers are more offense-capable.

Rightly or wrongly this war has long seen the West balance which weapons systems they were ready to give Ukraine, in order not to "provoke" Russia.

This has been the case to date for: tanks and long range missiles. Even now Germany is loath to release their Taurus.

Second, the F16 was initially not seen as a priority, very useful or viable in Ukraine. Viable in the sense that they need long, nice airfields unlike say the Grippen, which was considered for this as well. Very useful in the sense that after a brief - very costly - surge early war the Russian air force has been mostly absent.

This calculation has changed somewhat with the drones and their use of glide bombs from a distance. F16s could deal with the first more cheaply than Patriots/SAMs and they could impose a cost on the second by targeting the launching aircrafts. Plus, it would allow easier use of NATO air-to-ground missiles. Last, rightly or wrongly, one diagnosis of the unsuccessful Ukrainian offensive last summer has been: "look what happens when you attack without air superiority".

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    Patriot missile systems might be "defensive in nature" (which is a good look) but at the same time they enable offensive actions which could otherwise be prevented by enemy air power, so... I think that's another factor.
    – Nobody
    Apr 15 at 8:42
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    @Nobody In many Western states, a significant fraction of the population is rather unwilling to give anything to Ukraine which could make Russia angry. Their goal is to give the bare minimum of defensive aid just so it doesn't look too bad, but not get any more "involved" in the war. So it's all a matter of PR: "See the cities getting bombed and civilians killed? We'll send a Patriot complex to help; that's just sort of like a big umbrella against bombs, so that's still okay with you guys, isn't it?" An F16 looks too much like a weapon so it's far less palatable for those voters.
    – TooTea
    Apr 15 at 9:59
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    @TooTea I think the line is somewhere along "could it be used to attack russian cities?", as then Russia could say "here we were attacked with weapons provided by the west". Apr 15 at 23:39
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    And the answer is, no, it couldn't. A Patriot is not an S-300, which were built with rudimentary Surface to Surface capability. There is certainly some defense-offense continuum on a F16, but a SAM is a defensive weapon. Much more so than say a tank. Or a Storm Shadow/Scalp. And even then, the US and NATO solution has been to just tell the Ukrainians to kindly keep those donated missiles to themselves and away from (proper) Russian territory. The "offensive actions" blurb is just idle chatter, if it is meant to convey military capability rather than appearances. Apr 15 at 23:47
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First of all, air defenses work. They work incredibly well, and represent an existential threat to enemy fighters, at a small fraction of the cost of an air force of comparable power.

Modern SAM don't even run their radar until they're given a target by other assets, such as AWACS (which Russia can't shoot down, because they're owned by NATO proper). 20-30 seconds after you detect the air defense radar, there's a missile heading your way. It's very hard to counterattack in that short a window. HARMs are useless, because the radar will be off in another 10 seconds. Other A2G weapons take longer than that to enter target coordinates. And you have missile evasion as a much higher priority.

Second, as already mentioned, SAM are strictly defensive, which sounds better politically.

Third, there's an economic impact as well as a political one. The world is watching the war. It's watching how Western and Russian weapons compare to each other in real combat. Some part of weapons sent to Ukraine will destroy enemy assets, some will be destroyed in combat.

A Patriot battery failing to shoot down a fighter is not news. It's a lack of news, until eventually it does shoot something down. A fighter shot down is news.

Very few teen series fighters have ever been shot down. This is mostly due to the wars they've been used in, against opponents half a century behind in technology. So far, no one knows how well they'll perform against a peer opponent, and the expectation is they should perform very well. But it probably won't even come to air-to-air combat. Both Russia and Ukraine have exceptionally good air defenses, which are shooting down each others' aircraft at long range at an unprecedented rate.

An F-16 shot down is a tiny blow to national prestige, considering it's not all that new, but a much larger one to the global defense market, which is dominated by 4th generation aircraft. The two best-selling fighters in the world are the F-16 and the Su-30, in this order. Should the customers' order of preference reverse, the cost will be far higher than $1 billion. Fighters sell at a huge markup, with profits as high as $100M per airframe, and it's a trillion-dollar market. Right now, Russia is in no position to sell off its aircraft, except in small numbers for strategic reasons, but should this war ever end, the production lines aren't going to just stop.

So, a $1 billion Patriot battery is just that: a SAM battery. A $34 million F-16 is a showcase for a $300 billion export market.
This means the US should be much more sure that its iconic fighters will be used well and look good, compared to much less visible ground assets.

Fourth, friendly fire is a common issue with air defenses. NATO is generally better at avoiding it through IFF than Russia, which tends to disable its air defenses where its planes operate. But Ukraine's mix of Western/Russian SAMs and Western/Russian fighters is ripe for such incidents. It's safer to stick to just one tool, SAMs or fighters, and SAMs are far more useful for a defensive war.

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    I would also bet that operating a Patriot battery is a lot easier than operating a fighter jet. Training pilots is probably a long process. You also need technicians to maintain the aircraft. Sure you need training and men to operate a Patriot battery, but I suspect it's a lot less.
    – user4574
    Apr 15 at 14:35
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    @user4574 A US pilot flying a fighter jet is also different than a US specialist helping run a Patriot battery, in that one is clearly tip-of-the-spear, the other is a consultant. (Note I am not saying US personnel are in Ukraine running Patriot batteries, just noticing it would be considered quite different.)
    – Yakk
    Apr 15 at 14:47
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    @user4574, it takes about a year to train a fighter pilot; a Ukrainian pilot transitioning to the F-16 would probably need nearly as much training because of how different the aircraft are. I don't know the training time for the Patriot, but similar systems are typically between two weeks and three months.
    – Mark
    Apr 15 at 21:36
  • I would also consider weapon testing aspect of the conflict - there no much field for air combat (event assuming fully trained pilots)
    – Morresh
    Apr 15 at 21:56
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False dichotomy. A single F-16 is mostly useless. You need several.

Then, you need the whole logistics chain. Pilot training, maintenance training, replacement parts, etc. Of course, you need most of that for the Patriot battery as well.

A Patriot battery is almost completely defensive. A fighter squadron can be defensive or offensive. Escalate as desired.

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    "A single F-16 is mostly useless; you need several." Of course, you need several, as you have guessed. For 1 billion dollars, you can get 29 F-16 fighters. A logistics chain is also required for a Patriot battery. Operator training, maintenance, and replacement parts are necessary for the Patriot battery as well. No argument has been detected. Escalating rhetoric has no arguments to support it, especially since no HIMARS have been used on enemy territory.
    – Fedor Omni
    Apr 14 at 15:42
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    Yes, the logistics chain thing exists for both. But the "$1 billion" vs "$34 million" is a false comparison.
    – WPNSGuy
    Apr 14 at 16:00
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    @FedorOmni Indeed you do need ancillary equipment... which is part of the Patriot battery. The $1 billion price tag includes two command vehicles, two sets of radar and communication vehicles, and around twelve launchers. And you do need training... about three months, which is half what it takes to be type certified just to fly a new class of jet, let alone fight in it.
    – Cadence
    Apr 14 at 16:27
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    @PeteW: F-16 can shoot down cruise missiles without having to pre-position as much as Stingers teams presently do. Apr 14 at 17:17
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    @thegodsfromengineering - In part. But AFAIK, if the goal is to protect an important object, they're not sufficient. 4th generation jets are also expensive enough that when their presence can be predicted, which would be more so if entire squadrons were flying around on patrol all the time, they'd turn into targets themselves
    – Pete W
    Apr 14 at 17:46
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Training and Logistic Issues

While some of the other answers aren't wrong, there are also training and availability issues.

Ukrainian air force pilots were trained to fly the Soviet jet fighters that were in Ukraine's Air Force (most of which were actually designed and built in Ukraine prior to the break up of the Soviet Union, leading to supply chain problems for the Russian Air Force in the 1990s and beyond, and particularly after Russia's first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, because it no longer had the same access to aircraft parts from Ukrainian manufacturers, which was followed by a loss of access to other part suppliers after the war began).

Retraining these pilots to fly a the U.S. made F-16 would take months in the middle of a war when their scarce skills were needed elsewhere. Training new fighter pilots from scratch would have taken much longer and would have required trainer aircraft designed to prepare pilots to fly American fighter jets, which Ukraine also lacked.

Also, the U.S. wouldn't have to just transfer the F-16s themselves, they'd need to transfer the whole package of parts and equipment that are used to maintain F-16s which Ukraine completely lacked, and to train Ukraine's Air Force support personnel for that quite skilled and specialized task. As a rule of thumb it takes about twenty active duty air force personnel on the ground to support one fighter jet, most of whom would have to be retrained to support an F-16. An F-16 requires 17 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.

Former Warsaw pact members Slovakia and Poland did transfer about 33 MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukraine's pilots knew how to fly, and which Ukraine had the parts, equipment, and support personnel to maintain, to Ukraine. If need be the U.S. can sell or transfer fighter jets to NATO countries like Slovakia and Poland that are giving up their own fighter jets, since they are under much less time pressure than Ukraine. Countries like Slovakia and Poland can take the time necessary, at their comparative leisure, to acquire the trained pilots and crews and equipment and parts to fly and maintain Western warplanes.

And while the U.S. did not transfer F-16s to Ukraine, they adapt advanced U.S. missiles usually used by F-16s (AGM-88 High Speed Radiation Missiles) so that they could be used on Ukraine's jet fighters, in about two months, with development starting around June of 2022, and the U.S. first delivering them in August 2022 (in a war that began in late February of 2022). Usually it would take years to design, test, and field a way to use an existing missile on a different aircraft platform in peacetime.

In contrast to jet fighters that Ukrainian pilots could fly, which the U.S. lacked, the U.S. was the only available source for Patriot missiles. So, it made more sense for the U.S. to supply Patriot missiles, while deferring to other pro-Ukrainian countries in NATO to supply Ukraine with more jet fighters.

It is apparently much easier to learn how to operate a Patriot missile battery than it is to learn how to operate an F-16 in combat conditions, and a Patriot missile battery needs a crew than a fighter jet. It took about ten weeks to train existing Ukrainian soldiers to use the system, and those soldiers did not have the short supply/high demand skills of fighter pilots, so it was easier for Ukraine to spare their training time in order to gain this capability.

As of January 2024, transfers of U.S. F-16s to Ukraine, in a war that took much longer than was expected at the outset and shows a likelihood of continuing for many months to come, was under consideration, but U.S. Congressional politics, particularly due to splits in the Republican House delegation that holds a thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (with room for only two defectors in a party-line vote), have so far sidetracked those proposals.

This isn't mostly out of pocket spending

Framing the question in terms of the purchase costs of the weapons isn't the way that the issue presents itself to U.S. military and foreign policy decision-makers.

The dollars spent on the weapons being transferred are largely sunk costs. Much of the military gear that the U.S. has provided to Ukraine, except some ammunition, involves no new out of pocket expenditures in the short term.

As of 2023, the USAF operates a total of 841 F-16s of different variants, and the U.S. has hundreds more which are in Air Force National Guard or Air Force Reserve service. (Source) The USAF has about five thousand warplanes in its fleet in all. The USAF is planning to send 11 F-16s to the boneyard in the coming year to free up Air Force funding for new planes, including 60 new fighter jets in the coming year. In the medium term, the USAF hopes to replace all of its F-16s with F-35A aircraft or cutting edge alternatives. Many F-16s in U.S. military service are already old and they were designed for a useful life of about 20 years with top quality care and maintenance.

In some ways, A-10 air to ground close air support fighter jets from the U.S. Air Force inventory, which are less technologically advanced and as a result easier to learn to fly, and are easier to maintain than an F-16, which the U.S. Air Force is seeking to dispose 56 of in the coming year, might make more sense for transfers. But, while this has been suggested, for some reason, this option doesn't seem to have been explored as much. The Air Force is also sending 91 F-15s to the bone yard in the coming year, although a transfer of F-15s would pose at least as many barriers to a transfer as an F-16.

The U.S. Army has about 50 Patriot Missile batteries on hand with crews of about 90 soldiers each. The oldest of them entered service in 1984 although there have been many upgrade since then. The likelihood of a missile attack on U.S. territory that would be countered with Patriot Missile batteries in the short term, meanwhile, is very low.

But, transferring Patriot Missile batteries opens the door to allowing the U.S. Army to procure more of them, in the most up to date models, as this military system is still in production and the Ukraine War is a marketing tool for them.

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    BTW, training or no training, there were some information that people from donator country were engaged in using some equipment in Ukraine. It is much easier to conceal in case of SAM operators than pilots. Apr 15 at 7:27
  • @TadeuszKopec If only Ukraine was willing to give a bunch of Western pilots Ukrainian passports and uniforms…
    – TooTea
    Apr 15 at 10:17
  • Every pilot is free to join International Legion. But sooner or later they will die or captured and the scandal will be bigger than with Daniel Duggan. Apr 15 at 11:24
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    This is the real answer. A single F-16 might cost $34M but you need an ecosystem of pilots, mechanics and parts. The entire program could easily surpass $1B by the time you're done.
    – Machavity
    Apr 15 at 12:28
  • @user13964273 Right, but a pilot joining the International Legion won't likely be allowed to bring his "own" jet. Compared to that, it would be much nicer if a Western country was brave enough to say "here's 50 F-16s, and here's a matching set of vacationers in uniforms without insignia". That model is proven to work in the context of this war.
    – TooTea
    Apr 15 at 13:14
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An additional point: jets are harder to hide [on the ground] than SAM batteries. Having well-protected airfields is an important step in that direction, as the recent events in Israel have demonstrated. And jets don't deal well with ballistic missiles, although they can handle cruise missiles (and their cheaper drone equivalents).

So, sending SAMs before jets also makes sense in that respect, since Russia has and has been using plenty of ballistic missiles against Ukraine. Having the jets destroyed on the ground by such missiles would be a pretty bad scenario.

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Question: Why did the USA quickly provide a $1 billion Patriot battery to Ukraine but not a $34 million F-16?

My guess is that, since China most likely possesses “Kinzhal-like” missiles as well, it was strategically justified to determine ASAP if the US has the capabilities to intercept these dangerous missiles, making it a top priority.

Short Answer

(1) The U.S. in Ukraine works in concert with it's allies many of whom are concerned about the war in Ukraine escalating. Adhering to that consensus necessary to maintain the NATO alliance has at times hamstringed US arms exports to Ukraine. But I would still argue Ukraine and the U.S. are still better off working in concert with our allies.

(2) The Patriot is a defensive missile system the F-16 could be used offensively and thus could be said to be an escalation.

(3) The US provided several Patriot missile systems of Ukraine too.

(4) The US did provide F-16s to Ukraine, No F-16s could not have been sent to Ukraine without the U.S. permission. The countries which gave up F-16s often received newer fighters from the US. The net effect however is the F-16s did not come directly from the U.S which is diplomatically more advantageous for the U.S.

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  • "countries which gave up F-16s often received newer fighters from the US" - in the case of Denmark, the decision to replace the now very old F-16s with new F-35s was taken years ago, and the processes ahead of that was a decade long. New planes weren't bought to be able to supply Ukraine with the old. Old planes could be supplied to Ukraine, because new planes were coming in. Apr 17 at 12:48
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    @StrangerToKindness, Exactly, But, Old planes are a bit of a misnomer. In US planes the electronics are modular and are replaced. So a 45 year old plane like the F-16 can actually have more advanced Radar, Avionics, Weapons etc, than a much newer planes. It's why the U.S. still flies them. It's not as fast as the newer Russian planes but that too is a misnomer. American fighters are slower over the last 4 decades.1960 F-4 Phantom at Mach 2.2 was faster than the F-22( Mach 2) F-35(Mach 1.6) or F-16(Mach 1.6). American fighters are platforms for weapons delivery, dog fghtng is a lessor concern.
    – JMS
    Apr 17 at 15:24
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Probably rather an unpopular opinion, but anyway: "helping Ukraine" never was the main point of USA. USA invented the lend-lease act primarily to renew their own defense and make somebody else pay for that.

When they announce giving some military equipment worth of X billions of USD, its not the newest model of that equipment that just left the factory, but a 10-15 years old stuff that USA wants to renew or will otherweise have to dispose in 5-10 years. In first place USA is helping USA itself. Always. And always will.

E.g. the patriot system you mentioned is either PAC-2 or PAC-3 (that what "business insider" writes), which were produced between 1990 and 2005. Even germany sent 20 years old marder IFVs, that were already falling apart. They take old equipment, put new price tag on it and send it over.

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    This doesn't explain why they're sending Ukraine Patriot batteries and not F-16s, which entered production in 1973 (the Patriot didn't enter production until 1976).
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 16 at 16:27
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    Even if true on some of the gear itself, this is not at all true on munitions. 155 shell supplies are going down, Stingers aren't even made anymore. Storm Shadow, Javelin... - all their counts are going down in NATO arsenals. A thing like a Patriot doesn't just stick around rusting in the parking lot, a lot of its utility is derived from software and electronics and that gets upgraded. So even an old SAM is a useful SAM. The S-300s are also very old by that metric and both sides use them. Apr 16 at 16:29
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    It is not true that all the weapons systems are outdated. The three IRIS-T SLM systems that Germany delivered to Ukraine (with a fourth one to be delivered soon) were, in fact, the first in the world. Yes, not even Germany has this German weapons system, only Ukraine has it. Apr 16 at 20:22

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