Air defence experts say US-built F-16 fighter jets would offer Ukraine an edge over the Russian air force, but only if combined with powerful missiles and targeting information which the West would also have to provide, drawing it more actively into the war.
“It’s not a panacea, not a game-changer,” said Konstantinos Zikidis, an aerospace engineer at the Hellenic Air Force with extensive experience of fighter jets.
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Most NATO members in Europe have kept open the possibility of sending their F-16s to Ukraine, even as President Joe Biden on Monday said the United States would not do so.
“The Sukhoi-35 is larger and faster and has a more powerful radar,” Zikidis told Al Jazeera of the Russian fighter jet the F-16 would be up against.
But the F-16 could overcome the Sukhoi-35 if it carried powerful Western missiles and received tracking data from airborne radar, Zikidis said.
If Ukraine were to receive F-16s, they would likely come from Poland, which has said it is ready to hand over part of its fleet.
These carry the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, a 10-20km (6-12-mile) range short-range infrared guided missile “undetectable by the target plane’s defence systems”, Zikidis said.
“And they have the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which covers larger distances of up to 100km (62 miles)… [and] can continue to receive target updates from the aircraft that fired it.”
Both missiles are among NATO’s most advanced.
Wing commander Thanasis Papanikolaou, who has flown and commanded formations of F-16s, agrees that, if networked, the F-16 would offer Ukraine a clear advantage.
“The Russians are using older tactics, whereas Western tactics have evolved to use planes in combination with the navy, ground forces, [airborne] and naval radar intelligence – this Western type of warfare is very advanced,” Papanikolaou told Al Jazeera.
“The Su35 may have great abilities, but it is behind the F-16 if equipped with Link 16,” said Papanikolaou, referring to a NATO communications technology that data-links planes, ships and ground forces. “This enables every asset on the battlefield to share the same picture.”
If NATO’s AWACS airborne radar were to operate at the limit of Romanian airspace, it could illuminate virtually all of Crimea, a territory Ukraine says it wants to recapture, and reports suggest the White House is willing to consider helping Ukraine do.
Ukraine wants new tech
Ukraine has suggested it wants some of the most advanced versions of the F-16.
“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense … It’s not just F-16s. Fourth-generation aircraft, this is what we want,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, told Reuters.
Poland, which operates fourth-generation F-16 Block 52+ planes, confirmed on Monday it was prepared to send them to Ukraine if NATO approved the move.
Experts say these carry a “sophisticated” on-board computer and powerful radar.
At the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s air force was spearheaded by 50 MiG-29 fighters and 32 Sukhoi-27s, but they were “overmatched” said a recent RUSI report.
“Russian aircraft could generally see and shoot further while their countermeasures were effective against Ukrainian air-to-air munitions,” the report said.
Moscow’s highly publicised aircraft losses in the opening days of the war dropped after the Russian air force brought in air defences and started jamming Ukrainian radar and hunting Ukrainian anti-air batteries.
Ukrainian pilots partly compensated for their disadvantage in numbers and technology by flying below enemy radar, but the limitations of this tactic were made painfully obvious last October when a Ukrainian Sukhoi-27 and a Sukhoi-24 were shot out of the sky by Russian missiles after performing a “jump” – a brief thrust into higher altitude – to fire at kamikaze drones or enemy air defences.
Western airborne radar failed to spot the incoming missiles, leading to suspicion that Russia may have begun to deploy its fearsome R-37M, a hypersonic missile believed to have been fired more than 200km (124 miles) away by a Sukhoi-57, Russia’s still-experimental multirole stealth fighter.
Against such a combination of arms, even the F-16 Block 52+ may not be a match, say experts, but it does underline Ukraine’s need for a generational leap in air attack capabilities.
Can it be done?
There are clear advantages to the F-16.
It is the world’s most-produced fighter jet, with many being decommissioned in Europe as NATO members transition to the F-35.
Lockheed Martin, which produces the F-16, told the Financial Times it can increase production to replace planes sent to Ukraine.
COO Frank St John said the company was “going to be ramping production on F-16s in Greenville [South Carolina, US] to get to the place where we will be able to backfill pretty capably any countries that choose to do third-party transfers to help with the current conflict”.
The Netherlands’ foreign minister, Wopke Hoekstra, said there were “no taboos” on weapons supplies to Ukraine, and recent reports had suggested that the US Pentagon had seriously considered sending F-16s.
But there are practical and symbolic concerns.
Training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s might not be carried out in time to make a difference in the war this year, say experts.
“The altimeter in Western planes, for example, is in feet. The Soviet altimeter is in metres. It’s two different ways of thinking,” said Papanikolaou.
“It would take many months, and they might have to be piloted by [Western] volunteer veterans,” said Zikidis.
Bringing in Western pilots, even as privateers, could create political complications.
“The Russians will try to present that NATO is directly involved in the Ukraine war, and will threaten nuclear war,” said Papanikolaou.
Ukraine has reportedly prepared a batch of 50 pilots who have flown in Western military exercises and could be trained in three months. And US Congressman Adam Kinzinge introduced a bill to train Ukrainian pilots and support crew on F-15 and F-16 fighter jets as early as June 23 last year. That bill was approved.
The symbolic concern is over losses of aircraft.
Western weaponry has proven largely superior to Soviet-era weaponry during the course of the Ukraine war. But Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles could prove a match for the F-16, ending the narrative of NATO superiority.
“It carries a risk,” said Zikidis. “If you lose an F-16 it will be a big story. Sukhois are falling out of the sky, but that’s not a story.”
Perhaps for such reasons, there are still naysayers in the Western alliance.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz, after bowing to pressure to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, said he would not be sending the jets.
“I made it clear very early on that we are not talking about combat aircraft, and I am doing the same here,” he told the Bundestag this month.