How Will the Arrival of F-16 Jets in Ukraine Affect the War with Russia?

The arrival of F-16 jets in Ukraine holds the potential to significantly impact the ongoing conflict with Russia

by Sededin Dedovic
How Will the Arrival of F-16 Jets in Ukraine Affect the War with Russia?
© Omar Marques / Getty Images

While observers anticipate the appearance of F-16s in the skies above Ukraine, Kate Rosenkranz, a pilot who flew 30 missions in a jet during the Gulf War, warns the Ukrainian aviators who will be operating them. Why? “It’s one thing to go on a training mission and drop bombs on a fake target or engage with different aircraft in an air-to-air scenario,” he told Radio Free Europe (RFE).

“It’s another thing to do any of that when the enemy is trying to kill you”. After years of requests from Kyiv, Ukraine is expected to receive its first F-16 aircraft from Western allies in June and July, according to recent reports.

The F-16 was created after the Vietnam War. In the air battles of that conflict, bulky, slow-turning American planes were alarmingly often shot down by more agile Soviet-made aircraft. To create the F-16, a team of designers known as the "fighter mafia" reversed the prevailing philosophy of the time, which resulted in large and complex American jets.

Instead of making a bigger engine to increase power, the designers of what would become the F-16 reduced the aircraft's structural weight. Instead of equipping the prototype with larger fuel tanks to increase range, the design team made the jet smaller and reduced drag.

Concerned that the aviation department would fill their jet with heavy, complex equipment, one team member later recalled: “We made the aircraft so narrow there was no room for all that junk”. The result has been characterized as the most successful fighter aircraft ever made.

Since the first shaky flight of its prototype 50 years ago, more than 4,600 F-16s have been built for the militaries of dozens of countries worldwide. Ukraine will be the latest in a line of countries to adopt the jet, which is officially called the Fighting Falcon but is generally referred to by its sharper nickname: "Viper." Rosenkranz, who wrote a book about his combat experiences as an F-16 pilot, says that Ukrainian aviators will, at least initially, be at a disadvantage compared to their Russian counterparts who fly advanced fighters.

While his country was compelled to deliver F-16s to Ukraine, Rosenkranz says he felt “it would be extremely difficult for Ukrainian pilots to fly combat missions to defend their nation without a long period of work and training on the jet”.

American pilots' combat flights only followed after they had logged more than 1,200 flight hours in a training aircraft, then more than a year of non-combat flights in the F-16. Even after this long period, his first combat missions were “terrifying,” he says.

A Lithuanian soldier stands next to a public bus with a mural on it urging the arming of Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets on the f© Sean Gallup / getty Images

“Russia has capable air defense systems like the (S-400 anti-aircraft missiles).

Their experienced combat pilots would have an advantage over Ukrainian F-16 pilots who have spent little time with their jets. As I said, there is a big difference between training missions and actual combat missions”.

Rosenkranz says it would take about a year of flying the F-16 before Ukrainian pilots would feel comfortable in the jet. “Even with that, I wouldn't necessarily believe they would dominate over Russian forces,” he says.

The F-16 was initially designed for maneuvering and shooting down other jets, including a rotary cannon that can fire 100 20-mm rounds per second. But with the powerful radars and missile systems used by today’s fourth-generation fighter aircraft, it is unlikely that an F-16 with a Ukrainian pilot will engage in the “nose-to-tail” types of combat seen in previous conflicts.

David Kern, a former F-16 pilot with thousands of hours of experience flying all fourth-generation fighter aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force, told RFE that he believes the F-16’s role in Ukraine will be a kind of “very flexible long-range cannon system”.

Kern, who now trains pilots on the same “fly-by-wire” flight control system used in the F-16, says American jets are likely to be used for attacking air targets such as large Russian drones and cruise missiles, as well as ground targets like “logistic routes and concentrations of Russian forces”.

The pilot adds: “It wouldn't surprise me if the Ukrainians use the F-16 to bring the fight to Russia, conducting very deep strikes into Russia to attack strategic targets”. After the first batch of F-16 fighters and their contingents of pilots and ground crews arrive in the coming days or weeks, Ukraine reportedly expects a total of about 20 pilots to be trained and ready for combat missions by the end of 2024.

This is far less than Kyiv hoped for due to reported difficulties in finding training slots. NATO members Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands have promised Ukraine a total of 85 aircraft.

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