The US must understand that Ukraine’s attack on Crimea would be viewed as an attack on any other region of Russia, while the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv raises the question of NATO’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said.
US President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the G7 summit in Japan that the US, along with its partners, was going to launch a training program for Ukraine’s military pilots on the fourth generation fighter aircraft, including F-16s.
“I would like to warn representatives of the administration against frivolous judgments on Crimea, especially in terms of ‘blessing’ the Kyiv regime for air attacks on the peninsula.
I’d like to remind you that strikes on this territory are considered an attack on any other subject of the Russian Federation. It is important that the United States be fully aware of the Russian response,” Antonov said.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Saturday that the time was yet not right for Ukraine to have F-16s, adding that the United States and its allies were going to decide which countries would supply these aircraft to Kyiv and in what number.
Antonov said that “every specialist knows that in Ukraine there is no infrastructure for the operation of the F-16, nor is there the required number of pilots and maintenance personnel. What will happen if American fighters take off from NATO airfields, controlled by foreign ‘volunteers’?”
Earlier, an Indian military analyst Vijainder K Thakur analyzed the implications of arming Ukraine with F-16 fighters and how would Russia respond.
Thakur says, the transfer of F-16 or a fighter aircraft with similar capability, would be the biggest escalation in the 14-month-old conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The F-16 would be able to strike military and industrial infrastructure deep within Russia, where such targets are unlikely to be well-defended. No country, especially a country of the size of Russia, can afford the cost of deploying protective air defense systems around targets deep in the interior.
Aerodynamically, the F-16 is less potent than a MiG-29 or a Su-27. However, as a platform, it represents a capability leap. Its range and ability to carry deep-strike weapons put Russia at enhanced risk.
The F-16 features more advanced radar and electro-optical sensors, longer-range air-to-air missiles, and hard-hitting precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, including glide bombs and cruise missiles.
Most importantly, it will be possible for Ukraine to integrate the F-16’s data link with its air defense network comprising numerous ground-based radar and missile systems, ground observation posts, drones, and possibly other airborne assets such as AWACS.
The F-16 fighters supplied to Ukraine are likely to be the MLU (Mid Life Upgrade) variants, being retired from service by NATO allies such as Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
The F-16 MLU features an upgraded AN/APG-66 radar with a new signal processor, a higher output power, and improved reliability. It can detect and track multiple targets at ranges up to 150 km. Its detection range in clutter or jamming is 83 km.
The F-16 MLU can carry AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile). However, it’s not known if the upgraded fighter can carry the AIM-120D variant, which features an active homing seeker and a range estimated to be between 120 km to 160 km.
The F-16s’ repertoire of precision air-to-ground weapons includes HARM missiles to attack radars, JASSM-ER glide bombs, and AGM-65B Maverick, an electro-optical or infrared-guided guided missile that can attack ground targets such as tanks, vehicles, and radar sites.
It’s unlikely that the F-16 could carry the much heavier Storm Shadow missile.
The F-16 is a relatively small aircraft with a limited combat radius of 550 km on a hi-lo-hi mission with six 1,000 pounds.
However, operating against Russia’s advanced multilayered integrated AD system (IADS), it’s unlikely that the F-16 could fly a hi-lo-hi profile. More likely, it will fly lo-lo-lo or lo-hi-lo profiles, in which case the range will be much shorter.
The range can be augmented with drop tanks and reduced weapon load. (For deep strikes into Russia, the F-16 could carry drop tanks and AGM-65B Maverick missiles.)
Need For Support Infrastructure
Unlike the rugged Soviet-era fighters, such as the MiG-29, Su-24, Su-25, and Su-27, in Ukrainian inventory, the F-16 will require special infrastructure facilities at its operating base – for maintenance and storage of its electronics and weapon systems.
Factoring in the high cost and time involved in building and equipping the support infrastructure, the number of bases capable of supporting F-16 operations in Ukraine would have to be limited. Also, the operating bases would have to be in central or western Ukraine to preclude frequent drone and missile attacks.
The infrastructure required to support F-16 would be a point of vulnerability. It won’t be difficult for Russia to target the support facilities, even if they are built underground, using Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.
Likely Operational Utilisation
Besides using the F-16 as a versatile attack platform with precision strike weapons, the Ukrainian Air Force will likely also deploy US fighters for air dominance. In this role, F-16s will fly combat patrols at medium altitudes close to the battlefront, armed with long, medium, and short-range air-to-air missiles.
Russian fighters such as the Su-35S and Su-30SM currently fly similar air dominance patrols across the border armed with similar weapons loads.
They periodically shoot down low-flying Ukrainian fighters – Su-25, Su-24, and Su-27 – attempting to attack Russian ground troops and infrastructure.
Ukrainian F-16 air dominance patrol will be aimed at
1. Deterring attacks on Ukrainian ground troops by low-flying Russian fighters and helicopters such as the Su-25, Mi-28, Ka-52, and Mi-8.
2. Pushing back the launch points of Russian fighter bombers, such as the Su-34, which are targeting Ukrainian storage depots and staging points with great success. Released from altitude, the glide bombs can strike targets 50-60 km across the line of control into Ukraine.
3. To push Russian fighters flying air dominance patrols further back from the battlefront by putting them at risk of AIM-120D shootdowns. Doing so will enable the Ukrainian Air Force to more effectively support Ukrainian ground forces.
It’s unlikely that Ukrainian F-16s flying air dominance patrols will be as effective as similarly tasked Russian fighters.
Unlike Russian IADS, Ukrainian AD capability is weak. Flying at medium altitudes, Ukrainian F-16s will have to stay at least 250 km away from the battlefront to avoid being shot down by a 400 km range Russian S-400 system.
In contrast, Russian air dominance fighters need to stay just 50 km inside the battlefront to avoid being shot down by the 150 km range of Ukrainian S-300 systems.
For its special operation in Ukraine, Russia has so far depended more on its older S-300 systems. It has deployed some S-400 regiments in Belarus and near Ukraine’s northern border with Russia, primarily to monitor the airspace over Western Ukraine and deter incursions into Ukrainian airspace by NATO AWACS & ISR assets.
It’s not clear how many S-400 regiments Russia has currently committed to the conflict in Ukraine. Whatever the number, it is likely that Russia will have to increase it to counter F-16s.
Russia has so far used its top-of-the-line Su-57 stealth fighter for surveillance and communication support only.
If Ukraine deploys F-16 fighters, it’s likely that the Su-57 will be assigned a more active combat role. In head-on interception mode, the Su-57 will have a significant first-launch advantage over the F-16.
Russian ground-based radar will be able to vector Su-57 fighters well within the max (200 km) range of not just the RVV-BD long-range missile but also the max (110 km) range of the medium-range RVV-SD missile without the F-16 being aware of the RuAF Su-57.
The transfer of F-16 jets to Ukraine by Western nations is potentially very escalatory. A lot will depend on the variant transferred and the weapon systems that have been integrated with the variant transferred.
Most probably, the variant will be F-16 MLU.
Transfer of F-16 MLU variants will give Ukraine the capability to strike targets in Crimea, including the Russian Black Sea fleet ships, and facilitate Ukrainian ground forces in their expected attempt to cut the Russian land bridge to Crimea.
However, Russia has effective counters to frustrate Ukrainian attempts to pose an existential threat to Russia.
- Analysis By Vijainder K Thakur
- Follow the author @vkthakur
- Mail EurAsian Times at etdesk (at) eurasiantimes.com