Ukraine F-16 Saga: Liability vs Capability

Ukraine, F-16, No-Fly Zone are some of the key topics that have been doing rounds on social media. They wanted a no-fly zone to ensure no Russian jets and missiles can fly into their territory. Recently, as the US has removed limiters on what it is ready to send to Ukraine, the next headline grabbing target for Ukraine is F-16.

Why is F-16 signigicant for them?

The Ukrainian air force has lost

  • 17 MiG-29s
  • 7 Su-27s
  • 16 Su-25s
  • 14 Su-24Ms

That is about 54 jets confirmed lost by Oryx as of end of Feb 2023. For Ukraine, this is a huge chunk of their pre-war active fleet which is primarily made up of older variants of Soviet / Russian jets, lack major upgrades in radars and other sensors and spares supply is limited to stockpiles they have or can get from NATO.


The problem of dwindling nos. (Credits: On the picture)

One must ask, does F-16 even make sense for Ukraine? Yes, it does make a lot of sense to replenish the lost air assets but is it critical for a capability they currently lack? Hot take, NO! Because you need F-16s for two basic needs, Precision Strike and Air Supremacy / Air Denial. Ukraine can do both with everything it has received till date cheaply and without the liabilities of operating jet fighters.
Mind you, I am not saying Ukraine shouldnt get F-16s, the idea is they should get F-16s but it is better suited for a peace time procurement when their economy is better. At this time, they can do everything F-16 offers without spending time and money on F-16s.


Let us discuss the two primary capabilities offered by F-16s

Precision Strike

Flying over a target and dropping dumb bombs is obsolete in an environment saturated with MANPADS and air defense systems of the caliber Russians have. Russian S300s and S400s can shoot down aircraft over Ukraine (occupied and un-occupied land) unless it is flying extremely low and trying to hide between treelines and road traffic especially for helicopters. In the plains of Ukraine, anything flying at jet fighter speeds doesnt have many mountains and valleys to hide around and sticks out at any medium to high altitude. Hence, any F-16s sent to Ukraine will need standoff PGMs that can glide to targets far away from launch points. These weapons, eg. SPICE, Paveways etc. are very costly and any usage cadence requires regular deliveries. Flying low over plains reduces ferry range for the jets and drastically reduces glide distance too. Means the jet needs to approach low, pop-up to drop at optimal altitude and then duck and fly back. Any pop-up maneuver gives enemy ample change to fire up additional radars to intercept bombs and jets if possible.

Indian Mirage 2000 with SPICE, used during the successful but wildly controversial anti-terror raid.

How can Ukraine do precision strike without F-16s? They have been doing so for months now with HIMARS. Yes, it takes time to move around the launchers by land but Ukraine has been wildly successful with these. The current 80 km range limitation is to be superseded by the GLSDBs which can hit targets 150 km from the launcher, can cover the entirety of the occupied region with the same precision as F-16s and its array of PGMs.

HIMARS: Need of the hour

Air Superiority and Air Denial

Ukraine is using its jets in a very uncommon arrangement for air denial. Based on interviews with UAF pilots, Russian air force jets, which are superior in every way avoid direct air to air combat with Ukrainian jets. So the two forces try to “push” each other away by flying over certain areas in certain numbers. It is like Rugby / American Football minus the clashing and hitting. Russian war fighting doctrine was always written for air superiority is a good to have, not a must to have like US and NATO. They thus bring in their mobile AD systems like Tors, Buks, Pantsirs, S300s and S400s to deny their enemy air superiority and allow local usage of air assets.

IRIS-T in Ukraine

NATO on the other hand uses air assets heavily. You have bombers and tactical fighters loitering to ensure air space is not contested and quick air to ground support can be provided where needed. They use medevac helicopters and tactical aircraft like C-130s to move wounded troops out of danger within the golden 60-90 min window critical for saving lives.

Ukraine has seen a big influx of western air defense systems and still has its S300 batteries that help deny airspace for free use. They already have or will soon have the following western systems.

  • Stormer HVMs
  • IRIS-T
  • Aspide
  • Crotale
  • MIM-23
  • Avenger SR-SAM
  • Patriot
  • SAMP/T [Source: Oryx]

If the west can provide missile reloads in required quantities, these are enough to deny air superiority to the Russian air force. Any new jet fighter will be costly for Ukraine to fly and operate while endangering the lives of its pilots. Western fighters are costlier than Russian counterparts, raising the stakes for any jets lost. This is a nice segue to liabilities of operating F-16s.


I am going to quickly shuffle through these as bullet points as most are pretty self explanatory.

  • Cost: Western fighters are costlier to fly per hour than Russian ones. Meaning fewer fighters are in the air for the money spent. Drones like TB-2 can do recon and strikes while smaller drones and loitering munitions can be used on a tactical level for far lower spending.
  • Endangering Crews: In a MANPAD and SAM rich environment of Ukraine, manned jets need to fly low and close to targets to drop dumb munitions. PGMs are costly and thus fewer, meaning vast majority of missions need to be close to enemy territory thus exposing yourself to SAMs and MANPADS. Ukraine smartly used its MiG-29s and Su-27s with HARMs for SEAD but this is ineffective against S300 and S400s in Crimea and Russian territory.
  • Sensitive Western Tech: The west is happy to see cutting edge Russian systems destroyed for them to eventually get them and study them. The same will happen with any crashed western fighters. Tech like missiles and radars of western origin are far ahead of their Russian contemporaries. This forces the US to send older and inferior avionics to Ukraine when it eventually does to avoid them from falling into wrong hands.

Conclusion: We could get news of eventual F-16 donations for Ukraine as soon as the minute after this article is published. My take is, Ukraine has everything it needs to not need F-16 as badly. HIMARS and SAMs can provide precision strikes and air denial respectively with TB-2s and other drones doing more of the air to ground strike. It helps reduce the costs and use the money towards more important systems as SAM reloads and HIMARS munitions for higher strike rates. Even if F-16s are sent, it will difficult for the US to balance an avionics suite that is not too advanced to fear leaks and not too mediocre to hamper usage and protection. Ukraine should be pushing for Polish MiG-29s, HIMARS and SAMs in the short term, only go for F-16s when the end of/pause in conflict is in sight.




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