Now that Ukraine is in line to obtain F-16s, opinions surrounding their effectiveness span from being counterproductive to war-winning for Ukraine. Whereas most discussions have centered on the fighters’ air-to-air efficiency and the platform itself, the broader impact of their deployment with the proper munitions might be decreased Russian floor strikes.
Neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians have air superiority over the battlefield. Floor-to-air missiles, or SAM, and anti-air artillery present the vast majority of air management for each side. And but, Ukraine is simply too huge for SAMs to cowl, as most require line-of-sight, limiting most ranges at decrease altitudes. The mobility and line-of-sight of fighters makes them nicely suited to defend areas with sparse SAM protection. Fighters can even keep away from adversary SAMs by flying low whereas additionally with the ability to have interaction plane doing the identical.
The plane’s first position will doubtless be supporting air protection by intercepting cruise missiles. Given Russia’s low month-to-month capability for missile strikes on Ukraine, just a few F-16s are essential to intercept cruise missiles that enter Ukrainian airspace — offering wanted aid to Ukraine’s overtaxed SAMs. Some commentators have highlighted the F-16′s skill to deploy cruise missiles and different munitions for strikes and interdiction such because the Storm Shadow missiles. Nonetheless, these weapons are scarce, and F-16s present solely restricted extra capability except Ukraine receives a big inflow of air-to-ground munitions.
As Ukraine good points proficiency with F-16s, the following mission might be suppressing Russian SAMs, a mission that’s extra concerned than stand-off strikes. F-16s are nicely suited to function the AGM-88s that Ukraine has been equipped to suppress ahead Russian SAMs. These destroyed Russian SAMs are costly and unlikely to get replaced shortly. Attritting these techniques is crucial for Ukraine to realize native air superiority bettering the survivability of its drones and floor forces within the course of.
The 2 missions described are doable with the preliminary pledged F-16s. Of the approximately 60 F-16s promised, solely around a dozen are anticipated by early subsequent 12 months. As extra arrive, increased influence missions change into doable.
Russia’s restricted capability of stand-off munitions has not hindered its floor assault plane and helicopters from hanging Ukraine. Initially, Russia resorted to flying under line-of-sight of Ukrainian SAMs whereas employing “dumb” bombs. Russia has since tailored to make use of precision, stand-off glide bombs. Russia has additionally employed its multi-role plane in air-to-ground roles because it faces little resistance within the air. F-16s can goal the latter and pressure the previous to air-to-air roles. Whether or not Russia diverts plane to air protection, takes increased dangers, or performs fewer strikes, the result’s fewer efficient Russian air-to-ground strikes.
There will even be downstream results on Russian operations. Russia has, for instance, expended large quantities of its long-range SAMs for floor assaults. Given the excessive overlap of SAM, ballistic missile and air-launched missile elements, rising manufacturing of SAMs for replenishment will doubtless come on the expense of different missile manufacturing, which suggests even fewer Russian floor strikes towards Ukraine.
F-16s alone will not be sufficient. They require coaching, assist crews, communications, early warning, upgraded avionics and munitions. This infrastructure takes years to develop and isn’t prone to be totally fielded within the battle timeframe. Thus far, little public discourse exists on precisely what the pledged F-16s may have by way of capabilities and supporting infrastructure.
Past a excessive chance that Ukraine will obtain extra AGM-88s and Joint Direct Assault Munition (JDAM), no different public disclosures of F-16 munitions have been introduced. NATO’s most succesful long-range, air-to-air missiles (AAMs) are the U.S. AIM-120D and the U.Ok. Meteor. These are crucial to beat Russia’s lengthy vary AAMs, but neither has been pledged. Even when Russia has been inefficiently using its R-37′s by firing from lengthy vary and leaving the battle, Russia doubtless retains giant portions of R-77 missiles. It stays unsure how most of the AIM-120 variants previously provided for air protection are still available. An F-16 with any AAM remains to be an enchancment over Ukraine’s present MIG-29s.
If Ukraine’s F-16s are anticipated to strike floor targets, they’ll require the proper munitions. F-16 munitions designed for combating Chilly Struggle-era floor formations are the upgraded variants the CBU and Rockeye collection. Quickly these will want decommissioning and can lack host plane. Stand-off glide bombs just like the GBU-39 are already being provided as ground-launched variants and the air-launched variant may present wanted survivability for the F-16 to strike floor targets.
Will F-16s win the struggle for Ukraine? No. Solely floor victories and unacceptable Russian losses will pressure Putin to barter. An important assist to Ukraine remains to be artillery, medical gear, infantry weapons, floor autos, and drones. Nonetheless, a long-term dedication to supporting a well-equipped, sizable F-16 pressure will enhance the probability of Ukrainian success even when an F-16 by no means shoots a Russian fighter.
Michael Bohnert is a licensed engineer on the assume tank Rand. He beforehand labored as an engineer at a naval nuclear laboratory.