Can Moldova Be the Base Site for Ukrainian F-16s?

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Vladimir ROTAR
Despite the fact that the deployment of foreign aircraft on Moldovan territory looks today like a fantastic scenario, there are no objective obstacles to it, with plenty of advantages for Kyiv and its Western allies
By the start of the second month of summer, there is a diplomatic revitalization around the conflict in Ukraine. The inability to promote the “maximum program” of demands on the Russian Federation at the global level has forced Kyiv to soften its positions. First of all, the theses about the “1991 borders” have disappeared from the rhetoric of the Ukrainian leadership, which is a significant shift from the main idea of the previous two years. Obviously, this is part of the preparations for a new round of global talks on ending the conflict, which is expected before the end of this year. Nevertheless, diplomatic efforts don’t directly impact the course of military operations, which are evolving in their own logic. The general summer offensive by Russian troops, which many experts predicted, has not yet taken place, and it is not clear whether it will happen at all – to all appearances, the Russian Federation lacks the trained reserves to form a large assault group. At the same time, the Russians are attacking on a daily basis in multiple directions, making tactical advances and occasionally provoking an operational crisis for the AFU. The Ukrainians are still forced to stay in active defense, sometimes making counter-offensive actions, such as on the Kharkiv direction. There are rumors of a possible new Ukrainian offensive, which the Western allies would like to see, but its likelihood can be rated as very low at this point. Ukraine’s main goal right now is to hold back Russia’s advance, to deplete and exhaust the Russian formations, and at the same time to replenish its existing units and form new ones. In addition, it is necessary to increase the AFU’s capabilities, including through new weapons. In this respect, air defense and F-16 aircraft deliveries are now the most rumored. The F-16 is a fourth-generation multirole fighter capable of performing a wide range of combat missions. Why these particular aircraft were chosen to bolster the potential of the Ukrainian Air Force is clear – they are multi-purpose, they have been tested in many conflicts, and there are lots of them. A total of 4.6 thousand units were produced, about half of them are still in service. In other words, machines and spares for them are quite plentiful. The issue of handing them over to Kyiv was agreed upon as early as last year, but the implementation has been continuously postponed. Obviously, unlike other weapons, they are considered a more prominent symbol of escalation, which could make the conflict even more unpredictable and unmanageable in terms of retaliations by Moscow. Therefore, as of July, there are still officially no F-16s on Ukrainian territory, although the United States, through junior NATO allies, has already approved the delivery of more than 80 of them, with several dozens of them due to arrive in the near future. Apart from political reasons, there are also purely practical ones. First, infrastructure – building a new one is not feasible due to timing, cost, and Russia’s ability to oppose this process militarily. Therefore, the plan is to adapt the existing sites. However, in the run-up to the transfer of airplanes, the Russians ramped up their strikes on Ukrainian military airfields, sparing no missiles and drones. For example, they are heavily bombarding the Starokonstantinov airfield in Western Ukraine, where F-16s could potentially be based. Apart from political reasons, there are also purely practical ones. First, infrastructure: building a new one is not a feasible option due to timing, cost, and Russia’s ability to counter this process militarily. Therefore, adaptation of the existing sites is planned. However, in the run-up to the transfer of airplanes, the Russians have ramped up their strikes on Ukrainian military airfields, sparing no missiles and drones. For example, they are heavily bombarding the Starokonstantinov airfield in Western Ukraine, where F-16s could potentially be based. Another troubling aspect for Kyiv is that the Russian side has improved its ability to send surveillance and reconnaissance drones deep behind the front line and have thus launched sensitive attacks on Ukrainian refueling airfields used for military sorties. As a result, in recent weeks the Ukrainian air force has incurred its largest losses in the war. And worse, they were captured on video, spurring a big debate about whether American fighter jets and their maintenance personnel will suffer a similar fate. The allies are now considering the following idea: to base Ukrainian aviation in neighboring countries, and use Ukrainian airfields as staging bases, so that they can arm themselves there and leave for combat missions. According to NATO strategists, this approach will help avoid retaliatory missile strikes by the Russian Federation and subsequent escalation, as well as help ensure the safety of aircraft at permanent parking lots outside the conflict zone. One of the potential states for the role of such a hub is Romania, where a center for training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s is already operational. In addition, one can often see the reports that the fighter jets may be deployed in Moldova as well. Earlier this year, the defense ministry already denied this information, as well as the subsequent fake with a letter from the Ukrainian foreign minister to his Moldovan counterpart about aircrafts flying through the republic’s airspace.   Nevertheless, this topic remains afloat, and there are a number of reasons for that. Indeed, Moldova has a first-class military airfield in the village of Marculesti, which can receive airplanes of any type. Once an aviation base for the Black Sea Fleet, the facility was withdrawn from the defense ministry and, naturally, has not been used for its intended purpose for a long time. This does not mean, however, that it cannot be reactivated, the task is solvable. In addition, there are unconfirmed reports from “eyewitnesses” that the abandoned airfield is undergoing some kind of modernization. Another indicator is that the authorities have suddenly abandoned plans to turn the military airfield into a low-cost civilian airport, although they were announced not long ago, in 2022. The official version of the refusal (the return of the Chisinau International Airport to state ownership) does not look convincing. Therefore, either the officials failed to make the project economically feasible, or the facility was assigned another function. The news that Danish and Dutch specialists are already in Romania and Moldova to prepare aircraft maintenance areas and train Ukrainian personnel in practice is also circulating in Russian public forums. And in principle, Moldova is more and more often referred to as a base for Ukrainian aviation on Russian resources. The recent announcement that the EU is buying short-range surface-to-air missile systems for Moldova worth 9 million euros also fuels the rumors. These SAMs are primarily used to intercept low-flying targets - missiles, UAVs, airplanes and helicopters, and their purpose is to protect important facilities, including military airfields. So can our territory really be used as a base for Ukrainian military aircraft? Objectively, there are no technical obstacles to this, and the advantages are obvious, first of all, geographical - taking off from Moldova, the planes will be able to quickly equip themselves at airfields and effectively provide defense against combined missile-drone attacks, especially in the Black Sea regions and western Ukraine, or to hit objects in the same Crimea. In military and political terms, this theoretically puts Moldova at risk of a retaliatory strike, but its probability, according to Western analysts, would be minimal. Since the airplanes will be directly armed in Ukraine, and the Moldovan participation is unlikely to be officially announced (just as there is no information about military transit for the AFU), i.e. it will have to be proved. We should also not forget that an attack on Moldovan territory will lead to unpredictable consequences, including for Transnistria and the Russian troops and peacekeepers stationed there, whose protection is currently problematic. In this respect, such a move may be viewed by the Russian leadership as dangerous and therefore undesirable, even if another ‘red line’ is crossed. Right now, the option of deploying F-16s in Moldova looks almost fantastic, but, as we can see, there are no objective problems for this – everything boils down to political issues. If the next round of diplomacy fails and the war takes a new turn, we may well see such non-trivial solutions. Especially since our country is clearly on the way to integrate into the defense perimeter of NATO and the EU, which at some point may require more daring actions on the edge of the possible.