President Zelensky inspects F-16 jets alongside the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Source: @WarMonitors
While the F-16s provide Ukraine with improved capabilities, they are unlikely to significantly alter the overall course of the conflict, due to both the low numbers likely available, and the nature of the conflict – which remains predominantly determined by ground-based forces.
This report explores the complex challenges and potential advantages of the recent decision by Denmark and the Netherlands to provide General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to Ukraine, supported by the United States, to bolster Ukraine’s defensive capabilities against Russian aggression. It delves into the multifaceted aspects of this decision, including the logistical, tactical, and geopolitical implications.
Denmark has announced that they will deliver 19 of the fighter jets in total, with an initial six due to be sent to Ukraine by the end of 2023, trailed by eight in 2024 and finally another five in 2025. The Netherlands haven’t yet stated how many jets they intend to deliver to Ukraine however, they have 42 F-16s available in their arsenal. The United States has approved the transfer of the fighter jets once Ukrainian pilots are fully trained.
While the delivery of the jets undoubtedly marks a triumph for Ukraine and has raised hopes of bolstering its defence capabilities, it’s imperative to comprehend not just the remarkable capabilities of these jets but also their limitations. In the grand scheme, the introduction of a potential 60 jets will offer Ukrainian Forces with a substantial surge in both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the F-16 is more than 40 years old and moreover, that a single fighter-type aircraft is highly unlikely to impact Ukraine’s current counteroffensive operations, a sentiment that has been shared by both Ukrainian and US officials, or to determine the end state of the war. The pivotal factor, however, lies in how the F-16 jets are strategically utilised within a comprehensive ‘joint’ combat strategy.
Footage of an AIM-120 AMRAAM in action. Source: @PatriaeFilius
Benefits of F-16 Fighter Jets for Ukraine
Replacing Losses and Enhancing Airpower: Ukraine entered the conflict with an ageing fleet of fighter aircraft, primarily consisting of older-generation Mig-29 and Su-27 jets. Over the course of the war, Ukraine suffered significant losses, including the downing of aircraft due to Russia’s radar and air-to-air missile superiority. The introduction of F-16 fighter jets will help Ukraine replace these losses with a more advanced and capable platform. Should the conflict endure into 2025, then the additional airframes are likely to allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) to establish temporary control of the airspace for a limited duration in order to achieve more significant effects, including suppression of enemy air defences to enable close air support for ground offensives.
The F-16s, equipped with powerful radars and a better resistance to jamming, will enable Ukrainian pilots to detect Russian aircraft from longer distances, albeit not at the same distance as the Russian fighter jets. However, this will allow them to engage hostile ground forces while staying outside the range of front-line Russian air defences. Integration of additional airborne sensors into the Ukrainian network will enable improved situational awareness and better understanding of Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) activity.
Integration of Sophisticated Weapon Systems: While the immediate impact of F-16s on the conflict may be limited, operating the jets opens up the possibility for Ukraine to integrate a wide variety of sophisticated weapon systems. This potential includes electronic warfare countermeasure systems, and cruise missiles. The F-16s will likely be armed with AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs), which offer superior performance compared to Russian air-to-air missiles, as well as the long-range Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM), further enhancing Ukraine’s combat effectiveness by enabling long-range strikes launched from stand-off distances above their own territory. It remains to be seen whether the provision of the aircraft (and any related munitions) will come with caveats on their use. These weapon systems could significantly improve Ukraine’s ability to conduct precision strikes and effectively deter Russian aggression. Integration of additional anti-ship capability could also further restrict operations by the Russian Federation Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, thus reducing the ability of Russia to conduct long-range strikes from naval platforms. Moreover, compatibility with US-made fighter jets simplifies the process of NATO countries providing these advanced weapons to Ukraine. The compatibility of Ukraine’s arsenal with NATO’s enhances its defence capabilities.
Indirect Benefits to Air Defence: The transfer of F-16s may indirectly benefit Ukrainian air defence by freeing up additional anti-air systems to protect against Russian drone and missile attacks. With the provision of more capable aircraft to protect front-line troops from air attacks, Ukraine can allocate ground-based air defences to safeguard its civilian population and critical infrastructure against indiscriminate Russian missile strikes. Aircraft can also be used to interdict both drones and cruise missiles before they reach point-defences near vulnerable cities and targets.
Long-Term Interoperability with NATO: As Ukraine aspires to join NATO, the introduction of F-16s will familiarise the Ukrainian Air Force with NATO standards and training in sophisticated systems. This early exposure will pave the way for future interoperability between Ukraine and NATO forces, enhancing Ukraine’s prospects for eventual membership in the Alliance.
Lineup of F-16 Fighter Jets Poses a Formidable Threat. Source: @front_ukrainian
Limitations and Challenges
Operational Challenges: Despite the advantages of F-16 fighter jets, they are unlikely to have a decisive strategic impact on the conflict due to the operational challenges Ukraine faces. The presence of significant numbers of ground-based anti-air defences, particularly the Russian S-400 system, poses a significant threat to Ukrainian aircraft, including the F-16. Whilst the F-16 is more advanced than the current inventory of UAF aircraft, it is not a low-observable (‘stealth’) aircraft of the 5th generation and is still vulnerable to interception and destruction by both ground and airborne assets. Operating at low altitudes to evade these threats will place Ukrainian F-16s at a disadvantage in engagements with Russian fighters. Short-range, and man-portable air defences on the battlefield, also, can further threaten F-16s supporting ground troops near the front lines. Additionally, the most modern Russian fighter jets, like the Su-57 and Su-35 are likely equal to or superior for air-to-air combat. Equipped with superior radar systems and longer-range missiles, some Russian fighter jets are able to detect and engage F-16s before the latter has a chance to respond. Therefore, Ukrainian pilots may continue to operate cautiously, limiting their ability to perform air-to-surface missions effectively, especially when equipped with short-range weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).
Significant Logistical Burden: Once Ukrainian Forces acquire the jets, they must effectively manage, maintain, and ensure the long-term viability of the aircraft. These are not simple obstacles to tackle and encompass the acquisition of ample spare parts, budget allocation, training of maintenance personnel, and securing a continuous supply of weapons. All of these factors collectively emphasise that the situation is considerably more complex than merely training Ukrainian pilots.
Vulnerability on the Ground: Even when grounded, Ukrainian F-16s remain vulnerable to Russian missile strikes. Past instances have demonstrated that Russian missile attacks have successfully targeted and destroyed Ukrainian aircraft on the ground. This vulnerability highlights the need for robust protection measures to safeguard these valuable assets.
The delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine represents a critical step in enhancing the country’s defence capabilities against the Russian invasion. These advanced aircraft will replace losses, offer improved airpower, and open doors to the integration of sophisticated weapon systems. Additionally, they hold the potential to indirectly bolster Ukraine’s air defence capabilities against drone and missile attacks.
However, it is essential to temper expectations regarding the immediate strategic impact of F-16s in the conflict. Operational challenges and the widespread presence of ground-based anti-air defences limit the effectiveness of these aircraft in changing the course of the war. While the F-16 is a versatile multi-role fighter jet, it is not designed to excel in every facet. Some aspects of its performance, such as its vulnerability when operating from improvised airfields, may not align with Ukraine’s specific needs. Additionally, the F-16’s capabilities, in air-to-air combat do not match those of the latest Russian aircraft. Nevertheless, the effort invested in training Ukrainian personnel and aligning their capabilities with NATO standards will provide long-term benefits and advance Ukraine’s goal of becoming a member of the Alliance. The introduction of F-16s may not transform the war, but it represents a significant step toward bolstering Ukraine’s defence and fostering future interoperability with NATO.