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An F-16 departs from Bodø, Norway, for Denmark, where Ukrainian pilots are training. January 3, 2024.

The fight for the skies F-16s are coming to Ukraine. Meduza breaks down how the military plans to use them and what impact they could have on the battlefield.

Source: Meduza
An F-16 departs from Bodø, Norway, for Denmark, where Ukrainian pilots are training. January 3, 2024.
An F-16 departs from Bodø, Norway, for Denmark, where Ukrainian pilots are training. January 3, 2024.
Jan Langhaug / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

European countries are set to deliver the first F-16s fighter jets to Ukraine before summer’s end. Ukraine and its Western allies have ambitious plans for these warplanes: they’re not just an upgrade for the Ukrainian Air Force but also a critical tool in the battle for air superiority. However, modern aircraft alone likely won’t be a silver bullet for Ukraine. Meduza breaks down the two main ways Ukraine’s Air Force plans to use the new planes and how their introduction could impact the battlefield.

Targets on the ground

When the F-16s reach Ukraine, one way the military plans to use them is for striking ground targets. While this is typically a secondary role for F-16s, the Western fighter jets are expected to be significantly more effective at the job than the Soviet-era aircraft currently in Ukraine’s arsenal.

The F-16’s main advantage is its inherent compatibility with Western precision munitions. In contrast, Su-24 bombers and Su-27 fighters had to be specially retrofitted for Western weapons, and even then, full compatibility couldn’t be achieved. For instance, the Soviet aircraft can only use American HARM anti-radiation missiles in one mode, where the missile itself locks onto a target that’s emitting radio waves. F-16s, however, can provide targeting information using their own equipment or receive target data from external sources. Similarly, Su-24 bomber pilots, who currently launch Storm Shadow/SCALP cruise missiles, likely can’t adjust the missiles’ routes mid-flight using standard equipment (they’re believed to rely on special tablets for this). This limitation restricts the types of targets these missiles can effectively engage.

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In the future, Ukraine might have more F-16s than its current fleet of Soviet-made aircraft. Kyiv has been promised over 100 F-16s. There are no exact numbers on how many fighters and bombers Ukraine currently has. Before the war, Ukraine’s combat-ready fleet comprised approximately 120 aircraft: around 70 MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, 14 Su-24M bombers, and about 30 Su-25 fighter jets. Since the full-scale Russian invasion began, Ukraine has lost at least 90 aircraft — including more Su-24s than were operational at the end of 2021. This is partly because some aircraft were decommissioned and in storage prior to the invasion. Additionally, Ukraine has received several dozen Soviet aircraft from Eastern European countries since the full-scale war began.

It’s unlikely that all the promised F-16s will arrive simultaneously. The delivery schedule depends on Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands receiving new F-35 jets to replace their decommissioned F-16s. Additionally, it’s unclear exactly how many Ukrainian pilots have completed training to fly them.

But no matter how many operational aircraft the Ukrainian military currently has, the addition of dozens of F-16s will significantly bolster the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ (AFU) strike capabilities. And in the long term, a larger and more effective Ukrainian Air Force could have as much impact on the battlefield as the Russian Aerospace Forces, which have been actively employing high-precision bombs with planning and correction modules (UMPK bomb kits) and guided missiles to target front-line positions. The recent successes of the Russian offensive against Ukraine’s fortified positions are largely due to air support.

Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo at Melsbroek Air Base in Steenokkerzeel, Belgium. May 28, 2024.
Virginia Mayo / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The West is currently supplying Ukraine with precision munitions for aviation, including analogues of the Russian UMPK, but they haven’t yet had a significant impact on the battlefield. This isn’t just because the Ukrainian Air Force is relatively small and not fully adapted to using Western weapons; the main issue remains the Russian air defense systems near the front line.

From the very beginning of the war, Ukrainian military aircraft have been forced to operate exclusively at low altitudes to reduce the risk of detection by Russian radars. It appears they’re using the precision munitions supplied by the West under these conditions. A recent video shows a Ukrainian MiG-29 dropping French Hammer glide bombs: the aircraft flies at low altitude, then ascends sharply, releases the bombs, and performs an anti-missile maneuver. This reduces the effectiveness of the bombs, both in terms of range and possibly accuracy. Conversely, Russian Su-34s employ UMPK-equipped bombs from long distances (tens of kilometers) and medium altitudes, taking advantage of Ukraine’s weaker long-range air defenses and the AFU’s inability to use their own fighter aircraft against Russian planes.

Why the delays?

Right weapon, wrong timing Ukraine has been waiting for F-16s for over a year — can these warplanes still change the situation at the front?

Why the delays?

Right weapon, wrong timing Ukraine has been waiting for F-16s for over a year — can these warplanes still change the situation at the front?

To address this, Ukraine is aggressively targeting Russian air defense systems even before the F-16s arrive. Over the past few months, more than 10 successful strikes have been carried out using Western-made missiles and long-range drones, hitting Russian air defense radars and launchers on Ukrainian territory (including Crimea) and in Russian border regions. However, success is far from guaranteed, especially as Russian forces continue to target Ukrainian high-precision long-range missile launchers.

Adding F-16s to the equation isn’t likely to dramatically change the situation. It would take dozens of daily sorties and the effective use of complex tactics — meticulous intelligence gathering on radar and launcher positions, launching false targets to activate enemy radars, and synchronized missile strikes from both ground and air — to achieve overall success. Additionally, the military has to confirm that the radar system has been completely destroyed in the attack, not just temporarily disabled.

Even the larger Russian forces failed at this, despite their significant efforts to eliminate Ukrainian systems at the start of the full-scale invasion. It’s highly likely that the F-16s will have to operate under the same conditions as Ukraine’s current aircraft: flying at low altitudes and under constant threat from air defense systems and fighter jets.

Targets in the air

In order for Ukraine to establish air superiority, it would need to suppress Russian air defenses and fighter jets — a challenging and unlikely feat. However, disrupting the current bombing tactics of the Russian Aerospace Forces, which rely on medium-altitude and long-distance strikes using UMPK-equipped bombs, seems more achievable.

Su-34 bombers carry out a strike on AFU positions. June 3, 2024.
Russian Defense Ministry / TASS / Profimedia

Russian aviation is particularly vulnerable to losses. In the spring of 2022, after Ukraine successfully shot down several Russian aircraft in a matter of days, Russia’s Aerospace Forces effectively withdrew from the battlefield. They returned only after adding glide bombs guided by satellite navigation to their arsenal. At the onset of the February 2022 invasion, Russia had only a few hundred modern aircraft, including about 120 Su-34 bombers. Throughout the war, at least 30 Su-34s and 19 relatively modern fighters (Su-30SM, Su-35) have been lost, including some non-combat losses. Additionally, a Ukrainian drone strike damaged a Su-57, Russia’s newest multirole fighter, while it was at an airfield.

A few successful attacks on Su-34s during their bomb runs could potentially force the Russian military to abandon their use. Furthermore, the ability of the Russian aircraft industry to replace significant numbers of modern planes is questionable. After the war began, Russian aircraft manufacturers and the Defense Ministry stopped publishing exact numbers of new planes and started announcing deliveries in vague “batches.” Estimates suggest that 10 Su-34s were delivered in 2022, six in 2023, and four in 2024. However, since the start of this year, eight bombers have been confirmed lost.

This loss rate appears manageable for Russia, as it hasn’t affected the intensity of its bombing campaigns. However, an increase in losses could force the Russian command to change its bombing tactics or temporarily halt campaigns, as was the case in 2022. Such a shift could significantly ease the situation for Ukrainian ground troops.

A Ukrainian soldier examines the wreckage of a Russian Su-34 in the city of Lyman in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. October 5, 2022.
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The F-16s being delivered to Ukraine will come equipped with AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, though it isn’t clear yet which specific variant. The U.S. has tested and is already producing extended-range versions of these missiles, capable of hitting targets up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) away under ideal conditions. However, Ukraine will likely receive an older version with a shorter range.

Justin Bronk, a combat aviation expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, argues that F-16s equipped with AIM-120C missiles (range classified, but estimated to be up to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, under ideal conditions) would struggle to hit Su-34 bombers that are attacking from 60–70 kilometers (37–43 miles) behind the lines. The F-16s would need to get quite close to the front to be within striking range, forcing them to fly at low altitudes to avoid detection.

At these altitudes, AIM-120C missiles are less effective due to increased drag from the denser air and the need to fight gravity to reach higher targets. Under these conditions, they’d struggle to achieve the necessary height and speed to hit targets flying several kilometers higher, Bronk explains. The same issues would also affect the French missiles on the Mirage 2000-5F fighters promised to Ukraine by President Emmanuel Macron.

The European long-range Meteor missile, which can be launched from the Swedish Gripen fighter, could strike Russian Su-34s at their attack positions. However, Sweden has paused plans to send Gripen jets to Ukraine, with the country’s defense minister citing the need to focus on training pilots to fly F-16s for now.

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There also isn’t much hope that long-range air defense systems like the S-300 and Patriot can help against Russian bombers. Ukraine’s stockpile of S-300 missiles is running low, and attempts to use the Patriot system against Russian planes have yielded mixed results: while Ukraine managed to shoot down several aircraft, including over Russia’s Bryansk region, Russian forces identified and struck some Patriot missile systems being moved near the front line in Pokrovsk, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Even with accelerated deliveries of air defense systems from the West, Ukraine will face a severe shortage. These systems are needed not only at the front but also in the rear to defend against Russian missile strikes.

According to Bronk, the most effective way to counter Russian bombers is by targeting their air bases. Ukraine has been employing this strategy, but mainly using long-range drones. Long-range missile strikes would be much more impactful. When aircraft are stored outside of hangars, which is the case at most Russian air bases, cluster munitions carried by missiles like ATACMS would be particularly effective.

Most Russian military air bases are located within Russia itself. Striking these bases would not only inflict heavy losses on the bombers but also force Russia to move air defense systems to the rear, easing the pressure on the F-16s. Additionally, if Russian aircraft are relocated to airfields deeper in the country, they would be forced to conduct fewer sorties per day and carry fewer bombs per sortie due to the need for extra fuel.

Despite this, U.S. authorities still prohibit Ukraine from striking air bases with American weapons due to fears of “escalating the conflict” to the point of nuclear war. Moreover, Russia has been employing the same tactic, striking Ukrainian air bases and attempting to destroy Ukrainian aircraft on the ground with drones and missiles. This approach hasn’t yielded decisive results against the small and dispersed Soviet-era aircraft. However, hiding the F-16s will be much more challenging — they require very specific runway conditions and a complex maintenance system.

What does this mean for the war?

Dozens of F-16s, if used effectively, could create serious problems for Russian aviation and ground forces. They’ll likely be able to periodically shoot down Russian aircraft and deliver more effective strikes on ground targets than the Soviet-era bombers and fighters currently in use.

However, it’s unlikely that the F-16s alone will grant Ukraine air superiority or even reduce the Russian Aerospace Forces’ advantage enough to achieve parity. This would require a comprehensive effort, including permission to strike Russian air bases with Western weapons.

The situation at the front

Juggling priorities Ukraine is counterattacking near Kharkiv, but insufficient manpower leaves other regions vulnerable to Russia’s ongoing offensive

The situation at the front

Juggling priorities Ukraine is counterattacking near Kharkiv, but insufficient manpower leaves other regions vulnerable to Russia’s ongoing offensive

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