Ukraine’s allies in the West are finally ready to help Ukraine obtain F-16 fighters and train pilots how to fly them. That will constitute a major upgrade for an air force full of Soviet jets all built prior to 1992.
Training pilots and maintainers to fly F-16s will take months, meaning they won’t enter the picture until late 2023 at the very earliest. And if they see combat, Ukrainian F-16 pilots will face a tough fight against Russia’s materially more powerful air force and many ground-based anti-aircraft systems.
That said, just because something is hard and doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.
Ukraine is likely to initially receive one or two dozen first-generation F-16A/Bs that have received a Mid-Life Update from Denmark and/or the Netherlands, unless the United States unexpectedly chips in some second-generation F-16C/Ds.
Crucially, F-16 MLUs can use newer weapons, though they lack the advanced AESA-class AN/APG-83 SABR radars that give the most modern F-16s a vital edge against Russian fighters and cruise missiles—that’s unless Washington makes a special point of providing this advanced technology still absent from operational Russian jets.
Training Ukrainian pilots may take time but won’t pose massive challenges based on early reports. Likely, it will involve two tracks, a shorter one for veteran pilots, and a longer one for “fresh” cohorts that may start with basic jet training in Britain and/or France before training on F-16s takes place in Poland and Belgium.
Educating maintainers will likely require more time than for pilots, so that too should start well in advance. Furthermore, Kyiv and its backers must arrive at a plan for financing the fleet, and as to what F-16 maintenance Ukrainians will undertake in-country (aided with tech support from Western mechanics on Zoom/Skype etc.) versus servicing done out-of-country, likely in nearby Poland, Germany, or Romania.
While Ukraine’s MiG-29s have engines intentionally ruggedized for operations from crude airstrips, the F-16’s underslung intake is vulnerable to ingesting debris. So, Kyiv must not only prepare F-16 facilities, but ensure those bases are cleared of rubble or small parts. Some experts see that as a bigger problem than others; F-16s have flown from Ukrainian bases before during a 2011 exercise.
Preparations for F-16s should be distributed beyond just a few bases, which would risk making them too obvious a target for Russian missiles. Moscow hasn’t attacked Ukrainian airbases much after the war’s first few months but will likely make an effort to destroy F-16s once active.
Another constraint arises from Russian long-distance radars and surface-to-air missiles batteries along the border and frontlines that can detect and destroy aircraft at higher altitudes well over territory controlled by Kyiv.
So Ukrainian F-16s, too, will mostly fly very low, masking themselves against terrain and the curvature of the Earth, to minimize their visibility. Even then, patrols by Russian A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning planes and Su-35s and MiG-31s will still threaten to unmask their approach using “look-down, shoot-down” capable radars.
Ukrainian pilots in turn may use their radars sparingly to avoid announcing their presence, just like turning on a flashlight in a dark room. That often means flying blind with the radar off, depending on ground controllers to advise them on Russian activity, where to fly and when/where to light up their radar to acquire a target.
It’s at this stage this tactic usually fails for Ukrainian pilots, as their R-27 radar-guided missiles require the launching aircraft keep its nose-mounted radar trained on the target right up to impact—ineffective, or even suicidal, when the Russian fighters can shoot back with longer-range R-77-1 fire-and-forget missiles and then high-tail away.
That’s where the F-16’s advantage kicks in: it can employ the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, which is fire-and-forget thanks to its built-in radar seeker, and which has similar range to an R-77-1.
Unfortunately, Russia’s beefier, twin-engine MiG-31s and Su-35s still have more powerful radars and also employ the ultra-long-range R-37M missile, which reportedly has already downed a jet at 110 miles range. For example, the Irbis-E radar on Russian Su-35 jets can supposedly detect an F-16-sized signature from 124 miles, while the APG-66(V)2A on an F-16MLU is effective out to 50 miles.
So, while the F-16 would be a big improvement for Ukraine, it still can’t simply tackle Russian jets head-on. Ukrainian pilots will still have to practice guerilla air warfare using ambushes, coordination from ground-based controllers and defenses, and likely input from NATO reconnaissance assets.
Mena Adel, who writes on military aviation exercises for Scramble magazine, suggested an example of how Ukraine’s F-16s would cooperate with ground-based air defenses:
“Ukrainian pilots will try to lure Russian fighters into [ground-based air defense] killing zones through deception or distraction, delaying the interception as much as possible… Even electronic warfare may help, which could increase in quality with Western jamming pods and defensive suits compared to the Ukrainian ones. These can break the locks or even delay them to help the Ukrainian pilots escape—or conversely, get closer to Russian aircraft, which is the main purpose of the Ukrainian pilot to try to hit the target within the no escape zone (NEZ) of their missile to raise the probability of kill (PK).”
Outside of their primary air-to-air mission, F-16s will give Ukraine a platform that can employ a wide variety of capable Western weapons and support systems, including JASSM stealth cruise missiles, AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles to target air defenses, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, many laser- and GPS-guided precision glide bombs, Sniper targeting pods and electronic countermeasure systems.
The combination of the F-16’s mobility and standoff weapons could threaten Russian ships on the Black Sea and bases in the Crimean Peninsula, likely compelling Moscow to commit even more resources to air defense.
While a modest F-16 fleet can’t win the war for Ukraine, if deftly handled by Kyiv’s experienced combat pilots, it will have potential to disrupt Russia’s current aerial tactics, help defend against cruise missile attacks, and impose costs to Russian aircraft, ships, and ground installations.
More importantly, the seeds of a Western-equipped Ukrainian Air Force must be sown as Ukraine simply can’t acquire modern, Soviet-style aircraft. That transition is best begun as soon as possible, even if the going is tough due to immediate threats posed by Russian missiles and fighters.
Fortunately, starting with a core of F-16s is a good choice—and not only because of their comparatively lower operating costs and globally distributed resources for sustainment. That’s because options will open in time to buy more F-16s as West European air forces replace them with F-35 stealth jets. And even old F-16s can be modernized and refurbished, as Taiwan is currently doing, particularly by integrating the SABR radar. Thus, Kyiv may eventually have a chance to think big with the famously lightweight fighter.
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, The National Interest, MSNBC, CNN, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systemsand Popular Mechanics. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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