F-16s are no ‘wonder weapon,’ but they could deal serious damage to Russian forces in Ukraine with the right missiles, former US Navy pilot says


F-16US Air Force

  • After months of asking, Ukraine finally got the West to shift its stance on outfitting its air force with F-16s.

  • But the fourth-gen fighter jets won’t necessarily be a game-changer or give Ukraine air superiority.

  • Effectiveness will ultimately boil down to what missiles the jets have, a former US Navy pilot says.

It’s increasingly looking like Ukraine is going to eventually get its hands on US-made F-16s, but while these fighter jets are unlikely to be a game-changing addition to Kyiv’s arsenal, they could cause serious headaches for Russia if armed with the right missiles, a former US Navy pilot said.

“I don’t think there’s a way to make it possible with the F-16s to gain air superiority,” Brynn Tannehill, now a technical analyst with the RAND Corporation think tank, told Insider. But the right weapon systems may allow F-16s “to strike targets that Ukraine might not otherwise be able to hit.”

Ukraine has been asking for F-16s since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, but the country’s Western military partners have until recently been reluctant to sign off on the request. Throughout the war, Kyiv’s pilots had a large flown of Soviet-era fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-27 from its existing inventory, though they did receive some from several NATO countries.

In May, several European countries announced their intention to form a coalition that would provide training and delivery of the fighters. Facing mounting international and domestic pressure, the Biden administration agreed to green-light the export of F-16s by its allies — much to the delight of Ukrainian leadership.

Air Force agile combat employment F-16

US Air Force airmen perform agile combat employment training while conducting maintenance on an F-16 at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Michigan on June 13, 2022.US Air Force/Master Sgt. David Kujawa

The details surrounding the training and delivery of the F-16s are somewhat murky, and there is no exact timeline for when it all might fall into place.

Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters this week that the development of a training program is being led by Denmark and the Netherlands, and the US is currently reviewing a request to support the training. That said, Ryder explained, F-16 training is expected to begin somewhere in Europe before the end of 2023.

When, exactly, the Ukrainian pilots will actually fly these fighter jets over the battlefield and how they will perform when they do is unclear though.

“While the F-16s are by no means a wonder weapon that will turn the tide of the war, they will help Ukraine adopt more-Western styles of warfighting—or force it to—and help its military cooperate better with those of NATO,” Tannehill wrote in a post for The RAND Blog last month. “The decision to give Ukraine F-16s is not about helping it survive the next phase of the war, but helping it ensure its sovereignty in the long term.”

F-16s likely won’t give Ukraine air superiority over Russia

Although the airspace above Ukraine is contested, Russia has demonstrated that it can outmatch Ukraine above the battlefield thanks to disparities in several areas, including electronic equipment, technical capabilities, overall numbers, and missile and radar performance.

Even with F-16s, Tannehill said, Ukraine will still likely struggle in an air-to-air combat role because they would be up against Russian air superiority fighters like the MiG-31 and Su-35, which can see farther away with their advanced radars, and Kyiv’s AIM-120 air-to-air missiles would be at a disadvantage given the range of Moscow’s R-37s.

Advanced air-defense systems like Russia’s S-400 would also pose a threat to the F-16s because they can target the fighters from great distances before the aircraft can get in range to fire short-range weapons like the US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) that Ukraine already has in its arsenal.

Air National Guard crews standing around a Ukrainian F-16 fighter jet on a runway.

California and Alabama Air National Guard crews replace an Air Data Controller on an F-16 at Mirgorod Air Base during exercise Safe Skies on July 25, 2011.US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn

It would be difficult for Kyiv to push its F-16s toward the front lines at a high enough altitude where they could effectively launch JDAMS without being vulnerable to Russia’s air defenses, Tannehill said. To minimize exposure, Ukraine can do this at a low altitude, but that reduces the range it has to throw the weapon.

“It’s really, really tough for Ukraine to gain air superiority or challenge Russian air superiority,” she said.

The F-16s are not without their advantages though. Obtaining F-16s would, for example, bring a significant jump in modernization to Kyiv’s military. For starters, this would help bring Ukraine’s current capabilities up to NATO standards so that Kyiv’s air force has less of a learning curve if it’s outfitted with newer aircraft at some point in the future.

As modern equipment becomes more user-friendly, it reduces the demand on its operators — things become easier, more intuitive, and require less technical expertise, Tannehill said. The F-16s would simplify a lot of what the Ukrainian pilots did and curb the complexity of conducting operations and using weapons.

This would benefit Ukrainian pilots in their use of the US-made AGM-88 HARM, or high-speed anti-radiation missile, which is designed to hunt down enemy radars. Kyiv’s Soviet-era fighters do not interface with the missiles, whereas the F-16s are actually designed to carry them, allowing for more dynamic targeting than the current setup on Soviet-era fighters permits.

Air Force F-16C with AIM-120 AIM-9 AGM-88 missiles

A US Air Force F-16C armed with an AIM-120 air-to-air missile, top, an AIM-9 Sidewinder, middle, and an AGM-88 HARM at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on May 20, 2002.US Air Force/Tech Sgt. Kevin Gruenwald

“That’s a significant improvement in capability over the way they’re employing them now,” Tannehill said of the HARM missiles. “This would potentially improve the Ukrainian ability to suppress enemy air defenses that are radar-based.”

The effectiveness of the F-16 will depend on its missiles

As Ukraine continues to make small territorial gains in counteroffensive operations along the eastern and southern front lines, Russia has remained steady in its strategy of relentless missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure.

This past week alone, Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces reported dozens of Russian strikes involving cruise missiles and drones. While the military is able to down many of these, its air defenses are not completely impenetrable.

F-16s could help aid Ukraine’s air-defense network — which consists of systems such as NASAMS, Patriot batteries, and S-300s. This network is already stretched and has a limited number of munitions, Tannehill said. The jets, relying on some of its air-to-air capabilities, could help cover areas that aren’t as well-protected by other air defenses.

“Ukraine needs to be sparring with its ground-based surface-to-air assets,” she said.

Outfitted with the appropriate missiles, like AIM-9 Sidewinders or AIM-120s, F-16s can give Kyiv more options for shooting down threats like the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones or Kh-22 anti-ship missiles that Russia continues to use for attacks on civilians.

Two US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons

Two US Air Force F-16 Fighting FalconsUS Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Lotz

But the HARM and air-to-air missiles aren’t the only missiles that would make a difference if paired with the F-16. The US could provide Ukraine with its long-range AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM. There’s yet to be any indications — at least publicly — that this might happen.

The JASSM is in the same class as Ukraine’s Storm Shadow missiles, in that they both are somewhat low-observable, can fly at low altitudes and travel at sub-sonic speeds, and share a relatively similar range and warhead size, Tannehill said.

Ukraine has managed to use the UK-supplied Storm Shadow missiles to great effect, although it must be used sparingly because Ukraine has only a small number. Tannehill said putting JASSMs on Ukraine’s F-16s would allow the country to expand its deep-strike capabilities, enabling Kyiv’s forces to threaten Russian military facilities and disrupt key logistics assets in Crimea.

Battlefield effectiveness of F-16s will ultimately depend on what weapons are provided from the West, Tannehill said. Even if Kyiv gets the “bare minimum” of air-to-air missiles, it will still be more well-equipped to shoot down cruise missiles and suppress Russian air defenses.

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