Ukraine Military Situation Report: The F-16 Decision – Analysis


By Can Kasapoğlu

The United States has approved the decision of the Danish and Dutch governments to send F-16 combat aircraft to Ukraine.

1. Ukraine Needs the F-16

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have a problem. In the twenty-first century, no land power—regardless of the potency of its heavy armor, infantry, or artillery—can prevail in war without a bare minimum of air superiority. Even the chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, admitted this in a recent interview with the Washington Post

Had the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) played its hand more skilfully in the opening stages of the conflict, it could possibly possess that air superiority now. Professional assessments suggest that the VKS’s failure stemmed from unsuccessful efforts in the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD). When the invasion began in early 2022, Ukraine operated a layered system of air defenses. The S-300 and S-300V1 missile systems defended at higher altitudes, while the SA-11 BUK and SA-8 OSA kept watch at low and medium altitudes. Later in the conflict, more advanced Western systems, like the NASAMS and Patriot, boosted Ukraine’s shield in the skies. Ukraine’s Strela and Igla arsenal of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), augmented by Western complements such as the Stinger, also proved effective against Russian combat aircraft forced to operate at low altitudes due to a dearth of precision-guided munitions. Due in part to Ukraine’s success with these layered air defenses, the Russian VKS failed to achieve either air superiority or a more comprehensive air supremacy in the early stages of the conflict, and it has been unable to master the skies in the months since. 

Yet one should not view Russia’s failure to attain air supremacy as an indication that Ukraine is winning the fight. The military balance of power in aerial warfare across Ukraine’s skies undeniably favors Russia. 

Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM combat aircraft, empowered respectively by L-175 electronic warfare pods and N035 Irbis-E and N110M Bars-M radar, outclass the Ukrainian Air Force’s principal fighter arsenal of MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft. Russia also enjoys advantages in the air-to-air missile domain of aerial combat, employing R-77-1 beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles with active-radar seekers that outstrip the effective range of Ukraine’s R-27R/ER missiles. This capability gap has forced Ukraine to fly brief combat sorties at low altitudes to take advantage of terrain masking and ground clutter. 

But flying low has not solved Ukraine’s problems. Field studies have reported that Russia’s S-400 strategic surface-to-air missiles, networked with its Podlet-K1 low-altitude radar, have intercepted Ukrainian aircraft flying at altitudes lower than 50 feet from distances of up to 150 kilometers. The VKS has also begun to employ long-range R-37M missiles certified to the MiG-31BM interceptor aircraft and Su-35S fighter aircraft, boosting the engagement range of its combat air patrols. Some evidence suggests that these assets prove especially effective when coordinated with the A-50U and Il-20 surveillance and command–control aircraft

Ukraine’s deficiencies in airpower are impeding its stalling counteroffensive. Its Western-supplied maneuver short-range air defense (M-SHORAD) systems, the Avenger and Flakpanzer Gepard, are straining to protect critical infrastructure from the Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions that Russia is launching alongside its own low-cost missiles. Russia’s tactical army aviation units, particularly its Ka-50/52 gunships, are also participating in this effort.

Although sanctions and limited efforts to prevent Moscow from purloining high-tech Western subsystems have disrupted Russia’s aircraft manufacturing capacity, the VKS continues to receive new advanced aircraft, such as the Su-35S

Ukraine needs a change. That change is the F-16. 

2. Ukraine’s F-16s Need to Possess Appropriate Weapons Systems 

Advanced combat aircraft are more than the sum of their parts. These complex machines can only be effective if used skillfully, with the correct weapons systems configurations and concepts of operations (CONOPS). 

When it joins the Ukrainian Air Force’s arsenal, the F-16 will cover both air-to-air and air-to-ground responsibilities. In air-to-air action, its beyond-visual-range AIM-120 AMRAAM missile baseline, with its long-range interception capability and advanced technologies, can make a difference. Ukraine, in equipping its NASAMS air defense systems with interceptor missiles, already uses some variants of this baseline. It remains to be seen if Kyiv will acquire more advanced variants of the AMRAAM family, such as the AIM-120C. 

The F-16 can also unlock the potential of Ukraine’s Western-supplied anti-radiation missiles, a weapon that homes in on radar emissions to destroy the adversary’s air defense assets. Ukraine already uses the US-transferred AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile, but with a quick-fix integration into its existing MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft, the weapon is less than fully effective. The F-16 can help Ukraine make the most of its AGM-88 HARMs due to the missile’s compatibility with the aircraft.

The US can further aid Ukraine by supplying it with AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) air-launched cruise missiles for its forthcoming Danish and Dutch F-16s. Air-launched cruise missiles would enhance Ukraine’s ability to hit high-value targets in the Russian rear. While Kyiv has already received Storm Shadow from the United Kingdom and SCALP missiles from France, neither of these is yet certified to the F-16. Supplying cruise missiles that the F-16 can use would only add to its potency and Ukraine’s long-range strike regime.

In a prolonged conflict, Ukraine’s need for ammunition is bound to gradually increase. The United States can meet this need. But another NATO nation, Turkey, also possesses F-16-certified weapons systems production capacity, ranging from cruise missiles to Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS) and even newly introduced aerial missiles. The Turkish government has already equipped Ukraine with TB-2 combat drones and MAM-L smart munitions for unmanned systems. Cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv in strategic drones and corvettes has grown over the last several years. It is safe to assume that using Turkish weapons systems to arm the Ukrainian F-16 fleet is on Kyiv’s wish list.

3. Ukraine is Racing against Time and the Russian Campaign

Attrition from prolonged conflict is slowly gutting Ukraine’s Air Force. While Bratislava and Warsaw have sent their own MiG-29 variants to Kyiv, running Ukraine’s air deterrent on Europe’s diminishing Cold War–era arsenals is not a feasible plan. While some analysts have advocated equipping Ukraine with the Swedish Gripen, due to its low operational crew requirements and its compatibility with dispersed basing strategies, the F-16 has long formed the backbone of several NATO countries’ air forces. 

But even if Ukraine takes possession of its F-16s tomorrow, its airmen will not be ready to fly them for some time. 

Generating the required personnel pool to fly and maintain a NATO-standards aircraft in the former Soviet space is no easy task. In all likelihood, the Netherlands and Denmark will supply Ukraine with a few dozen F-16s, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a tweet pinned that exact number at 42. Accepted military theory puts the minimum acceptable pilot-to-cockpit ratio at between 1-to-1.25 and 1-to-1.5. Doing the math, one can see that Ukraine needs to train scores of F-16 pilots. 

Previous editions of this report have analyzed how Vladimir Putin’s newly introduced conscription model and efforts at creating a “digital gulag” suggest shortening the odds of a long war ahead. Perhaps worse, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ambitions and Wagner’s aborted mutiny place the Russian Federation on an unstable trajectory. Equipping Kyiv with the necessary weapons to fight a protracted conflict is of limited value without also equipping their fighters with the skills to use them. 

4. A Foreign Legion to Fly Ukraine’s F-16s?

Even on an accelerated timeline, training enough pilots to man its growing air force will be a time-consuming task for Kyiv. Basic F-16 training takes four months under normal circumstances, though some estimates suggest that Kyiv could condense this window to three months. Still, basic training will only provide Ukraine’s pilot pool with the bare minimum of cockpit hours. Combat capability, like any skill, takes years to evolve. Apart from training new pilots and converting the existing ones to the F-16, Ukrainian military planners will have to deal with the absorption ratio, referring to turning freshman pilots into experienced pilots by giving them adequate flight hours. An active component of any given air force should have more experienced personnel than inexperienced ones, while reserve components can run on a less favorable balance.

Under such pressing conditions, could Ukraine develop a foreign legion of F-16 pilots, either by attracting experienced pilots individually or by partnering with private companies offering such services?

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has previously invited retired F-16 pilots from around the world to join the Ukrainian Air Force. Seconding Reznikov, Western writings in the Ukrainian press have amplified the idea of a mercenary pilot pool for Ukraine’s F-16s, centered on retired F-16 pilots with experience flying combat sorties and private firms offering aggressor training programs around the world. 

Moreover, one should not consider the F-16 a magic wand to turn the tides on its own. As a textbook fourth-generation asset with no stealth features, the F-16 will likely suffer damage from high-end Russian aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems—and its pilots along with it. Indeed, the Ukrainian Air Force will not even be operating the latest variant of the F-16 baseline—the F-16V Block 70/72, which has advanced capabilities, including a state-of-the-art APG-83 AESA radar that would prove a critical capability when tackling Russia’s air-superiority fighters. 

Furthermore, the Ukrainian Air Force will have to operate two alien sets of aircraft. Its current fleet is centered on Soviet-Russian solutions that possess a drastically different design philosophy compared to the F-16. While some nations intentionally diversify their combat aircraft deterrent in this manner—the Egyptian Air Force, for example, operates its Russia-supplied MiG-29 variants alongside American F-16s, and has placed orders for the French Dassault Rafale—Ukraine faces unique pressures that make such an arrangement difficult to sustain. Its air force has to integrate its F-16s amidst wartime adversity with its airbases constantly exposed to Russian harassment. 

Ukraine is in a race not only against time but also against its enemy. An effort to bolster its air force through the incorporation of foreign pilots would be a complicated solution to an even more intractable challenge.

5. Ukraine’s Vulnerable Airbases Could Hamper F-16 Operations

The Ukrainian Armed Forces do not operate any facility that is completely out of harm’s way from Russian missile and drone salvos. In the course of the war, Russian strikes have hit the Ivano-Frankivsk Airport near Lviv and the Yavoriv training base 10 kilometers from the Poland border. Worse, Russia possesses an array of weapons that can strike around the clock, from cheap Iran-made loitering munitions and air-launched cruise missiles to Kalibr naval cruise missiles employed by its Black Sea Fleet and Kinzhal aero-ballistic missiles launched from its MiG-31K interceptor aircraft. 

To mitigate risk, Ukraine needs to follow a dispersed basing architecture and take care not to concentrate its F-16s in one location. Yet while dispersed basing configurations are safer, they bring a higher burden for logistics and support networks. Moreover, Ukraine’s legacy airbases are not designed to sustain NATO-grade aircraft in high-tempo wartime. Thus, the Ukrainian Air Force will have to make the necessary modifications to its basing infrastructure. These include ammunition storage facilities, adequate spare parts supply chains, proper maintenance procedures, and effective ground operations. Although Western analysts are keenly focused on the question of training Ukrainian pilots, training Ukrainian ground crews will prove equally important to running a well-oiled air deterrent against the Russian threat. 

About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute

Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute

Hudson Institute

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