The piece is reprinted from Stefan Korshak's blog. You can read the original here. 

Before I get going I want to put out a link and a “thank you” to three armored vehicle veterans who were generous with their time and helped me write what I think is a reasonably solid news story. The rest of the world sure did click on it a lot, I am told, so clearly there are readers out there who want to think about the subject of “Whither the tank and is it time to declare it obsolete again?”

The gentlemen all are readers of this blog and I gratefully identify them: Mike Riedmuller,  Simon Johnson and Ian Healy.

Ukraine’s F-16s, let’s make some predictions! If nothing else, because everyone likes F-16 images!

As a starting point, the widely-respected Tom Cooper has already weighed in on this subject, and I suggest you start there. You can find the links to three blogs of his in his Substack account, all entitled “It’s the Range, Stupid…”

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As for me, for the last 18 months or so I’ve had pretty much unfettered access to a (retired) F-16 pilot, US Air Force, and he and I have been watching the F-16s-for-Ukraine saga. I pester him all the time. Sometimes, we discuss Russia’s R-77 and R-37 missiles, the radars aboard Russia’s Su-27 and Su-35 fighter jets, the missiles the Ukrainian F-16s have, and also the radar effectiveness of those F-16s’ radars, and we chew the fat about what will happen when Ukrainian F-16s start competing with Russian Su-27s and -35s for control of the sky.

Plane-Spotting NATO’s Logistics Hub for Ukraine – Little Polish Airport, Lots of Big US Cargo Planes
Other Topics of Interest

Plane-Spotting NATO’s Logistics Hub for Ukraine – Little Polish Airport, Lots of Big US Cargo Planes

It’s purely speculative that all the C-5 Galaxies, C-17 Globemasters and 747-400s thudding down at Rzeszów are loaded with artillery ammo. But clearly Washington is seriously behind the operation.

Tom Cooper did an excellent graphic relative radar ranges, which I have swiped. As you can see, based on that graphic and the data behind it, Russian fighters should be able to shoot down Ukrainian fighters well before the Ukrainian fighters get to a position to shoot back at the Russians. Tom’s analysis is a good deal more sophisticated than that, but still, I think I can add to the discussion.

For better or worse I’ve run them past an F-16 pilot, who I affirm is human, but he also knows his stuff, full career, weapons school. In other words a strong source.

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Size matters, and small is better

For one thing; it’s not just the aircraft radars that need to work; the missile target acquisition radars have to do as well.

I am informed, emphatically, by my F-16 pilot source that, for instance, the R-77 is not particularly seen as a threat to the F-16 because the missile is so big and its radar is sufficiently undeveloped that a competent F-16 pilot will spot it and be able to move easily out of the way. This is not least because R-77 is specifically designed to hunt big targets like an AWACS or a B-52, and not a relatively dinky F-16.

Second, speaking of size, in the US Air Force, it’s generally considered that all things being equal, an F-16 has a strong advantage in terms of being detected over Su-27/35 because the F-16 is a much smaller fighter with composites and some limited stealth ability.

Not that it was engineered specifically to be stealthy; it’s just that due to its smaller size and overall area, it’s not as easy to see on radar as a lot of other fourth-generation fighters out there. From an American fighter aircraft design point of view, this makes sense as American military aircraft design tries to increase advantages to the pilot because it’s the pilot that will be making the shoot/doesn’t shoot decisions and every millisecond of extra time the airframe gives him to do that, the better.

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In comparison, the Su-27/35 is a big, two-engined fighter built with the Russian design philosophy that stealth isn’t that important and Russian production capacity not inclined to expend resources reducing radar return perhaps marginally.

It’s true the most advanced Russian fighter – the bigger Su-35 – has a rated, factory-setting, on-board range roughly twice that of the smaller F-16. The question is, how much the more modern radar on the Russian jet, would be off-set by the smaller size and better design viz. radar return, on the US jet.

Then there is the off-set involving centrally ground-controlled air operations (the Russian way) and combat operations controlled by the package commander in the air, in this case the pilot in charge of probably one to three fighter jets flying a mission aiming to shoot Russian planes down if possible, either on attack or defense.

I can say with a good deal but not 100 percent confidence, because that’s what’s been visible for the last two years, that Russian air operations appear to be centrally-controlled little different from the late 1930s when the the Russian air force first obtained (limited) radios.

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In the fighter war, in Ukraine, the Russian fighter pilot is assigned a mission telling him where he will fly and at what altitude, and he is critically dependent on how well ground control finds him targets and vectors him to a launch point. From the examples I’ve seen (intercepted radio calls), the Russian fighter pilot expects orders from the ground, which is where the Russian military unites all its air targeting information, to fire.

Here, the Russians have a real weakness, and it’s equally obvious the Ukrainians know it. Since the Russian approach to air battle is to command and control from the ground, the Ukrainians for years.

At the top of the target list, very obviously, has been the Russian A-50 AWACS planes that watch the sky and deliver the bulk of the air targeting information to the ground controllers. The hunt has gone fairly well, according to Ukrainian intelligence there are something like seven of the planes left in the entire Russian Federation.

The Ukrainians appear to be dead serious about destroying A-50s wherever they can find them; they have expended very rare western cruise missiles to hit the single facility that repairs broken A-50s, they have risked valuable-as-gold Patriot systems close to the front line to set up A-50 air ambushes, and even sent agents with attack drones to hit A-50s parked at an airfield about 700 km inside Russia.

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Moreover, when the Ukrainians haven’t been hunting A-50 aircraft directly, they appear to have been almost as energetic hunting Russian officers that would have something to do with air defense. To date, the Ukrainian military has hit Sevastopol port twice or thrice (depending on how one counts such things) with major guided missile strikes.

Every time, they expended somewhere between 20-30 percent of these rare-as-hen’s teeth weapons, to hit not warships but headquarters. It’s obvious that for the Ukrainians want to kill Russian staff officers. The ones involved in ground-to-air control, literally can take longer to train than a fighter pilot.

So, my point, when the F-16 goes to war in Ukraine, it’s going to do so against a Russian air force already degraded in its ability to get its own fighter planes to a point to shoot at the F-16s, it’s going to do so against a Russian air defense network that is sitting largely in Ukrainian territory, with a significant percentage of the civilian population probably hostile, and the full knowledge that probably only a decapitation strike against Vladimir V. Putin with a 90+ percent probable success rate would be a higher priority for the Ukrainian General Staff.

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How much will this add combat advantage to the Ukrainian F-16s?

Well, certainly “some,” but of course just because Ukrainian pilots will have spent a year learning the aircraft and best tactics. And they will be sitting in smaller fighter planes and fighting against Russian air combat controllers who probably lack experience and would prefer to have more ways to watch the sky than they actually have.

This is not to say the Ukrainian pilots will be as capable of independent, quick-decision making as NATO pilots, nor is it clear that the Ukrainian air force would allow them the initiative.

But it’s also pretty clear that the Ukrainian pilots have some advantages they will take into the upcoming air battles, and if the Ukrainian military can step away from Soviet tradition, the advantages will be bigger. Although some Soviet traditions do persist in the UAF, when a more efficient option presents itself, the UAF has proved to be better than many armies in changing and adapting..

The really big question – data link yes or no? Technically, once the Ukrainian air force begins operating F-16s, that better option will exist, it will be essentially a question of someone outside Ukraine flicking a switch.

NATO AWACS planes are flying above Poland, Romania and the Black Sea now, plus there are all the satellites and drones watching the Russian-controlled air space. There is a pan-NATO air monitoring operation that has been monitoring effectively the air space to the north of Turkey and the east of Romania, since 2015.

Pretty much all of it is data-linked, meaning that a for instance Italian or British fighter pilot flying out of Mihail Kogqlniceanu airfield flying out of Constanta Romania, would expect to see every possible threat out there, that NATO can see, on his own aircraft displays, in real time.

With very little exaggeration, anything that flies out to 350-400 km at least. The Dutch and Danish F-16s the Ukrainians are getting have - unless it is removed – all the electronics and radios, screens and programming memory, to interface with data collected by NATO air reconnaissance.

So, the moment a Ukrainian F-16 takes to the sky in Ukraine, the Ukrainian air force will have a fighter in the air that can see everything NATO air reconnaissance can see, in real time. It’s just a question of the air forces operating the reconnaissance assets to choose to pass it on to the Ukrainians.

It is hard for me to overstate how powerful this advantage would be to Ukrainian air defense effectiveness. But it would be a political decision. But that raises question: Exactly by whom?These past several weeks I’ve been watching the aircraft flying over the Black Sea very closely, by which I mean reconnaissance aircraft operated by a NATO member over the Black Sea or near it, and in general one might best call it a clearly US Air Force-led effort with energetic participation by Britain, Germany, Romania, and to a lesser extent France.

I assume that whatever is visible in open sources is complemented by clandestine observation/intercepts/data processing by American satellites and the NSA, and further, that if the Russians put something into the air the chances are extremely high the Pentagon sees it.So where would the decision to give the Ukrainians access to the air reconnaissance data be made?

In Brussels and NATO headquarters, where Hungary could veto it? Hungary is a member of NATO, but they’re not participating in any air watch operations. Or maybe by individual states? For the Americans, it would be another case of the already traditional “We have this great military intelligence, but we can’t tell anyone, especially in real-time, because if we did that, others would find out how capable we are.”

I would hope the question of linking Ukrainian fighter jets into US/NATO air surveillance is at least being considered by the relevant decision-makers. That might be too optimistic because to make the decision, you have to be aware of the capacity and informed enough to weigh the pluses and minuses of risking that capacity’s compromise vs. better fighting efficiency if the capacity is used.

A lot of the people reading this are probably informed enough on the subject to at least think intelligently about the implications, but frankly in the real world it will be professional military bureaucrats speaking with elected officials’ staff, and neither of those two groups are the type of people that would see wartime victory in Ukraine as something that would particularly advance their personal careers. But one may hope.

As already established fact, NATO is helping the Ukrainians put targeting data into cruise missiles that hit Russian warships and kill Russian service personnel. Almost established fact, and basically the evidence for this is overwhelming, NATO is collecting targeting information on the Russians and turning it over to the Ukrainians for strikes by long-range missiles, drones, and medium-range precision-guided munitions.

There is enough evidence to strongly suspect NATO, or perhaps some individual members, are helping Ukraine out with targeting data inside Russia.My point is, if the discussion is data-link targeting data from a NATO reconnaissance platform to a Ukrainian F-16, the escalation is in the speed and efficiency of the transfer of the targeting information, rather than the actual transfer itself. As an aside, if journos like me know this is going on, then the Kremlin knows it’s going on, and that undercuts Russian rhetoric.

The fact is that NATO is helping Ukrainians kill Russians, and that it’s been going on for some time. A guy like Vladimir Putin certainly could have declared war on NATO quite some time ago.

Tech compromise

Another aspect of the upcoming air fight is that the Su-35 also can carry Russia’s latest, long-range, hypersonic missile, a weapon that is hard for any aircraft to avoid, called an R-37.

It’s true the S-35’s radar isn’t capable enough to find, track and enable the launch on targets as far as the R-37 missile can fly, but still the S-35’s radar probably outranges the Ukrainian F-16s’ radars enough, that Ukrainian F-16 pilots will have to take the missile very seriously. Like it’s slower predecessor the R-77, the R-37’s primary as-designed function is hitting NATO AWACS or American B-1s, both of which are bombers. Not dinky F-16s.

There are rare confirmed cases of an R-37 shooting down a Ukrainian fighter. Probably the rarity is down to the small number of Ukrainian fighters in the air and the Russian air force’s reluctance to expend one of these expensive missiles on a Ukrainian MiG or Sukhoi, which once warned of the incoming missile can dodge it fairly easily.

For those of you who play flight sims, I’m aware that the R-37 is a deadly, world-beating missile that is extremely difficult to dodge. All I can tell you is that my impression after talking to NATO air force guys, is that it’s considered dangerous in real life, but far from impossible to counter. Sooner or later we will see who’s right, the professionals or the flight sim crowd.

Another factor I think is worth taking into account, before we start guessing about the effect and capacities of F-16s on the Russo-Ukraine air war, and what happens when Ukrainian pilots in F-16s have to start flying combat missions with the constant threat that a Russian pilot in an Su-35 would use its better range and hypersonic missile to swat down the F-16, is that one of these top-end R-37 Russian missiles was found on the ground in Ukraine more than a year ago, almost intact.

There can be no absolute conclusions of course, but before we start looking at coffee grounds and goat guts to decide what we think the future will be, what about the Americans and Skunk Works? What about Area 51?

It is safe to say that the R-37 once captured by the Ukrainians became an absolute top priority for the US Air Force , cost no object, to dis-assemble and find counters to. Most likely it would involve developing an emitter or jammer that would mess with the R-37 radar, but as we know those guys in Area 51/Lockheed can be imaginative.

It looks very much like there is precedent. There is more than a little evidence out there supporting the theory that a February 2024 string of Russian aircraft shoot-downs looked suspiciously like Russian Su-34 attack jets  were getting hit in air space they probably thought was safe, and compromise of a defense jammer and a countermeasure developed by NATO scientists could be a reasonable explanation, but in no way proved.

Countering the R-37 missile aboard the Su-35 fighter are, for the US military, an even higher priority than defeating defensive jammers mostly on Russian Su-34 attack jets. The only questions are 1) are the 12-14 months between capture and now enough for the American spy geeks to have developed a countermeasure and 2) if and when it was developed, would they give it to the Ukrainians?

This takes us straight back to the question about the reconnaissance data links: would the Americans share?

(As another aside, since the decision to share would be in the beginning highly secret, and even later on not subject to much Congressional oversight, the chances of the Pentagon/White House deciding handing a technical counter to Russia’s best missile to the Ukrainians will be higher, precisely because the elected branch of government has stalled regular deliveries of conventional arms to Ukraine, now almost for six months.)

A few good men, dependent on Uncle Sam there are the most important piece of the kill chain of all, the pilots themselves. The first Ukrainian F-16 pilots already were trained combat fliers, on Soviet aircraft, and they will have spent the past year transitioning effectively into generic NATO-standard pilots.

It appears the first dozen or so picked to fly the first six aircraft got chosen because they knew enough English to be trained, flew a MiG or a Sukhoi competently enough, and seemed trainable enough (i.e., younger not older) to transition to F-16s smoothly.

The F-16s the Ukrainians will be in, as I understand it, will be aircraft produced in the 1980s and upgraded in the 2000s with a better radar AN/APG-66(V)2, which increased the target detection range up to half of an Su-35’s, and as we have discussed there are ways the Ukrainian military will probably try to overcome that disadvantage. However, it’s not just the radar.

These planes are equipped with laser-guidance and sensors and tracking kit to make them capable of dropping NATO-standard precision-guided weapons. According to defence.ua “the on-board computer, on-board displays, EW systems; navigation, communication, and low-altitude flight systems were updated, too.”

That the French and Americans have supplied Ukraine with laser-guided bombs is a fact, and that the French at least plan to continue to do so, also appears very reliable. Belgium this week announced it would commit more than 100 million Euros just to munitions for the Ukrainian F-16 fleet. In other words, the Americans are critical to the Ukrainian F-16s even having a chance at taking on the Russian air force for air superiority.

The Americans manufacture the best air-to-air missiles but Congress must approve their transfer, the Americans are very likely the deciding party on whether or not Ukrainian F-16 pilots will or will not see consolidated air target data collected by NATO in real time, and it is safe to say that only the Americans could develop a counter to Russia’s best air-to-air missiles, and it is simply a fact that only the Americans – but not elected officials – would be the ones deciding whether that counter, if developed, could be placed in the hands of the Ukrainian fighter pilots.

Bottom line, unless the Americans help, the F-16s and their pilots will be more valuable to the AFU as platforms to launch low-risk, there-and-gone, precision-bombing strikes, than as a tool to win air superiority. If the Americans help, then short term air war will go on much as before, except that there will always be a possibility of a pair of F-16s being around to interfere.

If experience is any guide, this will translate to the Russian air force making no adaptation at all to the presence of F-16s until the Ukrainians manage a series of ambushes, and after taking some painful losses the Russians will back off. This could happen but it absolutely isn’t certain.

No matter what happens, the F-16 influence on battle will be more influenced by numbers and lack of them, than technology. The first 6 planes and probably 10-12 pilots will start flying in Ukraine realistically in June. The existence of another 10 green pilots who completed English studies and basic flight training is know, they started advanced flight training this month and all being well they would be close to completing F-16 training about a year from now.

As far as I know, there aren’t any reports out there about another batch of experienced pilots with English in the pipeline, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Ukrainians are intelligence enough to force-feed selected pilots English in order to push more into F-16 training.

But even if that is the case, the bottom line is that if we see even a dozen F-16s operational in Ukraine by the end of 2024 it will be a near-miracle, and if one is careful it’s reasonable to predict about half of the 42 Dutch/Danish F-16s could be flying in Ukraine by summer 2025.

That would maybe be enough to control air space over a portion of the country, or push Russian aircraft away from a sector of the fighting line, for a limited period of time – provided none of them gets shot down.

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Comments (7)

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RBS
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Stephan. Thanks for all the good journalism. Not amilitarfy buff, but awefully concerned about the broader impact of this war, and for Ukraine, so I follow a few sources. Your articles for the KP are some of the best informtion out there...god speed.

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Will
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Remember when Washington said the Abrams 1A1 were so complex and had to maintain, too big for the roads, complex operation technology and…English skills required. Well they are using them in Ukraine with good success. Perhaps they want to turn them into standard NATO pilots, and English is the language worldwide for aviation.

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Coach John
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This comment in no way is an attempt to cast blame, but it has been very frustrating to know that for years Ukraine has had highly respected English language academies in Chernihiv, Kryvyi Rih, and Kyiv, with dozens of bilingual teachers and fluent bilingual students at these schools. We all know Ukrainian pilots have been terribly busy defending their homeland but anticipating language skills to learn to pilot U.S. made aircraft should have been implemented. In hindsight I wish the Ukrainian government would have dispatched these instructors to the airfields where their fighter pilots are stationed and tutor them intensively during their time on base or on rotation in order to speed up the process of preparation.

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will
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Will the fighter planes become obsolete technology during the foreseeable future, like the APV, FPV and MBTs?

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DB
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NY Times:
"Johnson Outlines Plan for Ukraine Aid; House Could Act Within Weeks
The G.O.P. speaker’s proposed conditions for sending a fresh infusion of military assistance to Kyiv are the strongest sign to date that he plans to defy critics in his own party and push through the aid package."

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dba
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BRILLIANT ARTICLE- THANK YOU ! WILL RE-READ AT LEAST ONCE MORE :))
ALSO, LOVE THIS MUSIC VIDEO ("FIRESTARTER") OF UKRAINE PARATROOPERS BLOWING THE SHIT OUT OF A russian (Lower Case lol !) mechanized assault. FUCK YOU RUSSIA !!!

https://t.me/alastor_revenge/20

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Be better ...
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Good to be better today than you were yesterday ...
Though the Russian army has several times more aircrafts , some of which are advanced but finding smarter ways to conduct or perform in the sky with such aircraft operating systems makes a difference ...
Make the best out of what you have ...

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