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Will the F-16 Fighting Falcon change the course of the war in Ukraine?

After more than a year of regular requests, Kyiv will finally start receiving General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, The National Interest reports.

A few months ago, the Netherlands announced plans to transfer 42 F-16s to Ukraine once Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly them. Denmark then promised to provide another 19 aircraft, while Norway said it would also transfer several aircraft.

Undoubtedly, this is a huge step for Ukraine, however, it is important to realise not only what these highly efficient aircraft can do, but also what they will not do.

F-16 aircraft will provide Ukrainian forces with a significant increase in both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, but this platform is 47 years old. Furthermore, no platform or system, even one as powerful as the F-16, can win the war for Ukraine. It is not the aircraft that is decisive, but how they will be used as part of a broader comprehensive combat strategy.

Ukraine now has Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets, which look similar to Russian fighters, but are fitted with even older on-board equipment, further reducing the combat capabilities of these outdated fighters. Yurii Inhat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s airforce command told the Wall Street Journal:

“A Russian jet can see 2-3 times further with its radar than our fighter. Our fighter is simply blind, it cannot see.”

As a result, the F-16s that Ukraine will receive will greatly expand their capabilities, even if they are fitted with systems that first appeared in the 1990s. However, it is important to remember that technology is only one part of the battlefield composition, and how these platforms are used in combat largely determines their value. Retired Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, a former F-16 pilot as well as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said:

“The integration of avionics, weapons systems, and weapons are decades ahead of what [Ukraine is] flying now. There will be an increased capability, increased radar range, increased weapons range, etc. But this is not the be-all to end-all.”

Retired US Air Force Brigadier General John Teichert says that the US approach to the adoption of new weapons involves a lot of training, drills and combat exercises aimed at making their use habitual for US pilots. While Ukrainian pilots are being trained to fly these fighters, it will be virtually impossible to demonstrate the same level of skill in the near term.

It is important to understand that upgrades, modernisation and system replacements occur over time, so two F-16s of the same designation flying in the same country may have different capabilities depending on the systems installed on them and the weapons they can carry. The single-seat F-16AMs and two-seat F-16BMs supplied to Ukraine are indeed obsolete – they underwent a medium modernisation in the early 2000s, bringing them roughly in line with the F-16 Block 50/52s that the US operated during Desert Storm.

There are a myriad of factors that could affect the outcome of the F-16s in Ukraine, and while it is safe to say that they will provide a significant increase in combat capability and capacity, anyone who claims to know exactly how these new fighters will change the dynamics of the conflict is either ignoring the complexity of the situation or being blatantly dishonest.

A common Western mistake is to assume that Russia has failed to secure air supremacy over Ukraine because it lacks the fighter capability to do so. As Sandboxx News has already detailed, Russian military doctrine is very different from the Western or American way of warfare that we have recognised as effective in recent decades.

The United States views air superiority as a means of improving the conditions of all subsequent combat operations. On the other hand, Russia developed its military doctrine with NATO in mind, and thus Russian planners have quite astutely assumed that in a potential conflict with NATO they would not be able to secure air superiority. Thus, air power is not seen in Russia as a stand-alone force, but as a distant extension of Russia’s focus on fire superiority. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, explained:

“Russian air doctrine is very different than Western air doctrine. They don’t use airpower other than as a means of an extension of ground forces.”

This should not be seen as a defence of Russia’s inability to control Ukrainian airspace, as the way this conflict has unfolded over the past 18 months clearly demonstrates the failure of this doctrine.

In other words, if Russia believed it could dominate airspace in large-scale conflicts, its doctrine would reflect that. But because Russian planners know that this is probably not the case, they have adjusted their planning accordingly. This is not so much an example of Russia simply choosing a different approach to warfare as it is an example of mitigating its own strategic and tactical shortcomings.

Until 2022, the Russian Air Force had more than 900 fighters in service, of which almost half were intended for strike operations and the rest were considered multi-purpose or air interdiction. Assuming an average, but plausible, Air Force readiness level of 50%, this leaves a total of less than 450 fighters that could be deployed in a wide range of Russian operations, including territorial defence, operations in Syria and elsewhere, and the war in Ukraine. Russia also faces a pilot shortage, forcing it to take instructors out of the training environment and put them in combat formation, further limiting both the volume and effectiveness of fighter sorties.

Concerns about a shortage of pilots and sanctions that are holding back aircraft production have led Russia to become somewhat more conservative in its use of airpower. That means it often keeps aircraft in Russian airspace while striking Ukrainian territory with longer-range weapons. With F-16s equipped with AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missiles, this will be much harder to do. Currently, Ukrainian pilots use Soviet R-73 radar-guided missiles, as well as R-27 radar- and infrared-guided missiles, all of which fall short of AMRAAM’s claimed range by 30 kilometres or more.

But even with all this in mind, Ukrainian F-16 pilots will almost certainly have a tough fight against superior forces, so the question will not necessarily be “Who will win between the F-16 and the Su-27?” but rather, perhaps, “Who will win between the F-16 and the two Su-27s?”.

Perhaps the most powerful improvement that the F-16 can offer Ukraine (aside from more aircraft) is suppression or destruction of enemy air defence assets (SEAD/DEAD). The manoeuvrable F-16 has proven to be extremely effective in this role for the US since it was borrowed from the F-4G Wild Weasel. US F-16s tasked with this mission are often given specialised equipment to match the specialised training of Wild Weasel pilots, so even the somewhat outdated F-16s heading to Ukraine will immediately provide a significant boost in SEAD capability. (Wild Weasel can refer to any type of aircraft equipped for SEAD missions.)

Since August 2022, Ukrainian forces have been using US AGM-88 High-velocity Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), but because these weapons are used on outdated Soviet aircraft that were never designed to use them, their use is severely limited.

Anti-radar missiles such as HARM act on electromagnetic radiation transmitted by radar arrays, i.e., radar waves, making them uniquely anti-radar. US Wild Weasel pilots often enter contested airspace in their aircraft, waiting for enemy air defence systems to switch on and attempt to target them or their wingmen. Wild Weasel pilots launch HARM missiles, which are guided by these radar waves and destroy the air defence assets as soon as the air defence system starts transmitting radar waves.

There are several modifications to the HARM missile, each with its own unique capabilities and limitations, so we’ll mostly have to talk in general terms about how the new modes available on the F-16 might affect the SEAD mission.

Soviet-era Ukrainian fighters can only use the HARM missile in what many call “pre-programming” mode. The missile is pre-programmed to the target area and then launched from the aircraft, often at quite a distance. The missile flies to the intended target, using its seeker to search for enabled air defence systems transmitting radar waves to then close in and destroy them.

This method can be very effective in mass launches because even if the missiles do not destroy enemy radar stations, their mere presence often causes air defence crews to switch off their antennas. This effectively amounts to air defence suppression, as the switched off antennas allow aircraft to operate in the combat zone for a short period of time. However, once the HARM threat has passed, these arrays can switch back on and start hunting Ukrainian aircraft all over again.

However, if the aircraft is equipped with NATO-standard “tyres” that allow the full range of capabilities to be used, the HARMs have two more modes of operation that can be very useful in combat: the “self-protection” mode and the “targets of opportunity” mode. In self-defence mode, the aircraft’s on-board radar warning receiver identifies an enemy radar station that is broadcasting. It then sends target data to the HARM, which, if the enemy disables the system, can target either the broadcasting radar or the specific location from which the waves originated. The Target in Opportunity mode works in a similar way, allowing the AGM-88’s onboard seeker to detect the activation of enemy radar arrays, which gives the pilot a signal to launch the weapon.

These additional modes will give Ukrainian F-16 pilots more options for suppressing or destroying enemy air defence assets, placing more emphasis on destroying those assets than suppressing them.

The F-16 is used in more than two dozen countries around the world, and the US Air Force alone has a fleet of more than 950 of these fighters. This means that countries such as the United States, which have large defence coffers and stocks of spare parts and equipment, could more readily provide Ukraine with what it needs to keep these fighters in the air. Instead of settling for fighter jets filled with Soviet-era parts, Ukraine can obtain parts and ammunition from permanent stocks that are being actively replenished on still-existing production lines.

Ukraine receiving enough F-16s would significantly improve its capabilities, capacity, and even morale. However, it is important to remember that we are not talking about the latest and most modern Vipers. Russia will still have a significant advantage in numbers, and some of the most modern, capable and well-equipped fighters will pose a real challenge to Ukrainian pilots.

There is a lot of speculation about how capable the F-16 is against the Russian Su-35S (the most common variant of the aircraft). According to the specifications, the Russian twin-engine variable thrust fighter is the more powerful of the two. Despite its significantly larger wingspan and mass, the thrust vector control on the Su-35 gives it greater manoeuvrability in the short range and allows it to maintain a greater degree of controllability when flying at a high angle of attack.

The Su-35 is equipped with Russia’s Irbis-E radar system, which is not as advanced as the more modern active electronically scanned array radars in service on many US fighters, but is still superior to the AN/APG-68 pulse-Doppler radar in service on the F-16s that Ukraine will receive. The Irbis-E is claimed to have a detection range of up to 400 kilometres with air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. The detection range of the AN/APG-68 fitted to the F-16 is 296 kilometres, meaning that the Su-35S is likely to be able to detect the F-16 before the F-16 detects it.

However, once these fighters start flying in Ukraine, the West needs to temper expectations. F-16s are incredibly powerful aircraft, but this war is about more than fighter jets. And fighter jets alone will not be enough to win it.


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