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What We Should Talk About When We Talk About F-16s Flying In Ukraine
Five practical implications
The F-16s are happening. With the politics and paradoxes and panegyrics behind us, we only await the first Ukrainians completing training and receiving their planes. The Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) will also receive JAS 39 Gripen jets from Sweden soon, and while I am less familiar with that platform, my understanding is that it shares a lot with the Fighting Falcon.
Here are five practical implications of a Cold War NATO airplane joining the UAF. Remember, this is a “fourth generation” fighter, and it was designed to operate in a very high intensity environment, even a nuclear one. As a US Army soldier, as well as an enthusiast, I have spent many hours watching them practice tactical combat operations. I do not consider myself an expert, merely an informed observer trying to distill this topic down so as to inform your water-cooler conversation.
The first thing to know is that the F-16 was designed from the ground up to be easily disassembled and salvaged. Close air support is inherently attritional. Ukraine will absolutely lose F-16s and pilots in them. Take that as a given. Also, these planes will survive with damage that can be repaired quickly without a depot. Engineers made these choices during the nuclear age under the twin assumptions that Soviet fire would score hits, and replacement planes might not come out of the factory as fast as they had in the Second World War, while repair facilities might be smoldering ruins.
These were solid long-term bets. Both Soviet and post-Soviet air defense equipment seem ineffective in Russian hands, but Ukrainian pilots still respect them. F-16s are so numerous already that Ukraine can keep on getting them, as well as spare parts for them, for a very long time. This makes it very possible to outlast the Russian Air Force (RAF) should the war still be dragging on a year from now.
Effects of the F-16 will be immediate — and lasting.
The F-16 is a multi-role fighter. That is, it was supposed to have many potential uses and flexible utility for a moving, changing battlefield filled with different things to destroy, or trying to destroy them in return.
Many weapons have been ballyhooed, and also dismissed, as “game changers” in Ukraine. No single weapon alters a battlefield on its own, though. Rather, “operational art” involves choosing the right combination of weapons (“weapon mix”) for the mission profile. Tube artillery and rocket artillery and close air support, combined, can dominate a tactical environment. Substitute any one for another, however, and victory is much harder to achieve.
To that end, the F-16 was always intended as a versatile performer, capable of delivering just about any payload or doing just about any sort of mission. This graphic does not even represent the entirety of possibilities for an F-16. Think of it as a menu for combined arms warfare, and picture Ukrainian mission planners salivating over their meals. Jamming pods to blind Russian radars. Missiles to hit Russian bunkers. Bombs to wipe out Russian barracks. Bullets to chew up defenses. Hellfires to take out tanks. So many options. Yum.
One of those potential payloads is long-range air-to-air missiles. Until now, the RAF has kept Ukrainian pilots well inside of their own territory. UAF losses over the Black Sea and in aggressive defense sorties have been excruciating to the command. The RAF uses combat air patrols dumping long-range missiles and overwhelm Ukrainian formations that lack the same effective threat range.
The missile being launched in the photo below was designed for a range of 30 miles — again, during the 1970s. Newer American AIM-260 JATM missiles reportedly have four times that range. Russia’s air combat advantage is disappearing.
In turn, this means the UAF can provide close air support (CAS) from higher altitudes. As I have explained a few times here recently, low-level tactics expose an airplane to ground fire that would not be dangerous, or be less dangerous, or at least would be easier to defeat while flying at a higher altitude. Air combat history bears this out over and over again.
Videos of Ukrainian Su-25s streaking in so low that they almost land on the roofs of semi trucks on the highway is thrilling to watch for a reason. It is extremely dangerous. Fill the air with everything from stray rifle rounds to random drone collisions to MANPADS and the dangers increase.
Aerial underperformance in this war has been blamed in part on this very problem. Pilots from both sides have flown under enemy radar to release their ordnance and get away without exposing themselves to the flashier air defense systems, like Patriot or Pantsir, only to get shot down by shoulder-fired munitions instead. US Air Force F-16 tactics focus on destroying the more prominent enemy air defenses, while staying high enough to evade smaller threats from the ground.
Finally, the F-16 was always intended to work with the A-10 Warthog. Critics of that famous plane say that it is just a bomb truck, which is true. However, it also carries twice the bomb payload of an S-25 bomb truck, which Ukrainians know how to fly but cannot expect to use forever. Like the F-16, this plane was built to be durable, survivable, and easily repaired or cannibalized for spare parts. Designed from the wheels up as a complement to the F-16, the A-10 is usually observed training over the same airfields and exercise areas at the same time. This is because they were always supposed to work together. Speculation abounded early last year, and again in June, that the US might send the A-10. There were many arguments against it, as there were against sending the F-16, that make less sense now with the F-16 in Ukraine.
The conversation over sending Warthogs to Ukraine can resume. Fanboys will be pleased.
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