Flying the F-16 in Ukraine is 'high risk,' and Kyiv's air forces can't just fly the fighter jet headlong into Russia's defenses

An F-16 Fighting Falcon, the kind of jet Kyiv desperately wants for its forces.Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum/US Air Force
  • Momentum is building for Ukraine to receive the F-16s it has long sought.

  • If Kyiv's air forces get the jet as expected, they won't be able to fly them directly at Russian defenses.

  • Airpower experts, including former pilots, say Ukraine will have to get creative.

Ukraine is a lot closer to getting US-made F-16s, but once it finally gets its hands on them, Kyiv's air force likely isn't going to be flying them into Russian-held territory or dogfighting with Russian fighters right out of the gate — at least not if it wants to keep them.

The jet can't risk going head-to-head against the Russian military's more modern systems, like its air superiority fighters and the formidable S-400 air defense system, not without weakening them first.

"And nobody's advocating for that," an air power expert told Insider. "That's nuts."

Instead, Ukraine is probably going to have to get a little creative with with the forty-year-old fourth-generation fighters to really get results in battle, Douglas Birkey, the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies executive director, said.

This fighter jet "represents a choice that is available under difficult circumstances. Ukraine's back is against the wall. They cannot win in a ground-centric war of attrition," he said. The Russians "will ultimately win that fight and bleed Ukraine dry" because they have the numbers to outlast the Ukrainians on the ground, where movement has been limited for months.

Air power could break the "slug fest," Birkey said, but that comes with the risks of downed F-16s.

David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and Mitchell Institute expert, recently made a similar argument, telling Insider "airpower is the one asymmetric advantage that can break this stalemate, and it's the only way to fundamentally give the Ukrainians a decisive advantage over the Russians."

Ukraine has been pushing for Western air power like the F-16 since the early days of Russia's war, but the US and other partner nations have focused heavily on the ground game, opting, instead, to provide anti-tank missiles, artillery, ground-based air defense, and armored vehicles.

F-16 Fighting Falcons
F-16 Fighting FalconsUS Air Force photo

It's not the best, but it's workable and available

Though the fighters have been off the table, there has recently been movement, as the US has given the green light to train Ukrainian pilots on the platform while European partners prepare a process to actually transfer the aircraft, as well as sort which ones and how many to send.

If Ukraine does get F-16s as expected, Birkey said the "flavor of F-16" will determine its effectiveness, as will the armaments.

Originally manufactured by General Dynamics but now a Lockheed Martin product, the F-16 has changed over the years.

The aircraft that first flew in the mid-1970s are not the same as some of the more modern variants, which have been upgraded with capabilities like improved avionics and software and added capacity for air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. These aircraft are often considered fourth-gen-plus jets, and what Ukraine actually gets will matter.

And it is not just about the jets. As a March Congressional Research Report said, "the advantages of transferring advanced western fighter jets in seeking air superiority are likely to be realized only if paired with large quantities of western-manufactured munitions," the type of which will be an important factor. The F-16 can carry a range of munitions, some more advanced than others.

Even on the more advanced end of the spectrum of available F-16s, which Ukraine likely would not get, there are concerns about how much impact the jets would actually have, their suitability, and, most importantly, their survivability.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said this week that the F-16 "will give the Ukrainians an increment of capability that they don't have right now" but won't be "a dramatic game-changer."

John Venable, a former F-16 pilot and air power expert at The Heritage Foundation, has argued that sending the fourth-gen fighter jets into the fray in Ukraine to face off against Russia's air defenses, including fifth-generation surface-to-air missiles, would be a "costly mistake" and have "virtually no impact on the war."

Birkey acknowledged that in order "to be really survivable and viable in today's context, you really need the combination of stealth, electronic warfare, and just fundamental flight performance." That's essentially a fifth-generation aircraft, which is not under consideration for Ukraine.

That leaves fourth-generation options, among which the F-16 may be the most suitable option based more on its availability than capability.

Justin Bronk, an air power expert at the Royal United Services Institute, has said that the Swedish Gripen "would be better suited" for combat operations in Ukraine.

He has pointed specifically to the "design [concept of operations], internal [electronic warfare] suite optimized for Russian [surface-to-air missile] defence at low level, ease of maintenance and Meteor option."

Sweden's defense ministry has said sending the Saab-made Gripens is off the table, arguing it does not have the ability to transfer aircraft to Ukraine without sacrificing its own defense. Sweden is thinking about letting Ukrainian pilots test out the jet though.

The US-made F-16, on the other hand, is available in sufficient quantities with adequate stockpiles of spare parts. It is also more advanced than what Ukraine is currently flying.

Regardless of which jet Ukraine gets, putting fourth-generation air power like the F-16 into a high-intensity conflict is "high risk," Birkey said.

"But," he said, "going without that air power is even higher risk." Ukraine's defense ministry has said it needs just four squadrons, or 48 aircraft, to make an impact.

F-16 Fighting Falcons based in the Central Command area of operations conduct armed aerial patrols over Somalia in support of Operation Octave Quartz Jan. 2, 2021
A pair of US Air Force F-16 Fighting FalconsUS Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride

It's better than 'doing nothing'

"This is not how the US or our allies would like to fight," Birkey said, noting that next-generation planes like the B-21, F-35, and F-22 play an important role in US plans for high-end warfare. The F-16 "is workable, albeit higher risk than we would want."

For Ukraine to leverage F-16s in a way that might make a difference, it's going to have to come at the situation a little differently.

"There are ways to do it where it is not just flying headlong into the teeth of the threat," Birkey said. "There are very specific tactics that will exacerbate the vulnerabilities the system has" because "no system's perfect."

He suggested using the F-16s as part of a "broader orchestrated level of effort" involving using attritable unmanned aircraft to identify, target, and attempt to overwhelm by either firing on Russian surface-to-air missiles or exhausting them by operating as "missile sponges," clearing the way for manned aircraft. "The unmanned has to enter the equation," he said. "That is not optional for the kind of tactics they need to run."

In a recent opinion article for Air and Space Forces Magazine, Larry Stutzriem, a retired Air Force major general and former F-16 pilot, pointed to an Israeli Air Force operation against well-defended Syrian targets in Lebanon in 1982.

The Israelis faced a formidable network of Soviet-built air defenses, anti-aircraft artillery, and enemy fighter aircraft thought to be impenetrable, but they wiped out the threat through a combination of manned fighter aircraft, drones, decoys, and electronic attack, among other tools.

Stutzriem, the director of research at the Mitchell Institute, argued that even though defenses have evolved, there's a lesson in this engagement for Ukraine.

"No one is advocating Ukraine fly F-16s blindly into the Russian defenses. Effective use of airpower requires a mix of strategy, tactics, capabilities, and technology to net desired effects," he said.

Ukraine, he continued, should use its available unmanned, loitering aircraft and munitions, among other capabilities "to place the air defense network under significant stress that suppresses and degrades its effectiveness."

The argument is that Russian defenses exhausted by other measures may be vulnerable to attacks my manned aircraft, such as the F-16 or other fighters armed with AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) designed to knock out the radar systems necessary for ground-based air defenses. There are alternative strike options as well, and Russians cannot endure endless losses.

As Deptula previously noted in discussions with Insider, the F-16 is able to conduct key Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions and has been a key US air defense asset for decades as part of the post-9/11 Noble Eagle mission that defends US and Canadian airspace.

"No one is presuming that there's going to be zero losses," the retired general said. "That is absolutely unrealistic." But, he said, "the reality is Ukrainians are dying every day, and prolonging" this war is not option.

"I think that we need to prepare ourselves," Birkey said. "There are going to be some definite losses."

The Russians are going to be looking for a propaganda and military victory in taking out these assets, just as Russia sent its advanced Kinzhal missiles after US-made Patriot batteries and went gunning for HIMARS. Bases and runways will also be targets, meaning Ukraine will have to be serious about base defense.

"The entire base, whether it be training, aircraft flows, all of that, needs to be situated to handle that attrition factor," Birkey said. "The pilot pipeline, aircraft pipeline, everything has to be sized for that."

"We've got to be eyes wide open," he said. Still, sending the Ukrainians the jets they need to shatter the stalemate is a far "better option than doing nothing and ultimately losing."

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