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F-16s headed to Ukraine this summer will face their most dangerous battlefield ever

Jake Epstein   

F-16s headed to Ukraine this summer will face their most dangerous battlefield ever
  • Ukraine is slated to receive its much-anticipated fleet of F-16 fighter jets this summer.
  • The American-made aircraft have flown combat missions around the world over the past few decades.

The long-awaited delivery of F-16s to Ukraine is on the horizon, and these advanced American-made fighter jets can't come soon enough for its forces.

Western-provided F-16s will give Kyiv's current fleet of aging Soviet-era warplanes a major upgrade in capabilities, for critical offensive and defensive roles, and boost their firepower with the right munitions.

The combat-proven Fighting Falcon has decades of experience flying in tough, war-time environments in places like the Middle East and the Balkans. The fourth-generation fighter has racked up an impressive collection of high-profile missions over the years.

But the skies above Ukraine will be the most dangerous battlefield that the fighter jets have faced so far, former US military pilots told Business Insider, as the aircraft goes up against Russia's advanced air-defense systems and long-range air-to-air missiles.

A combat-proven fighter jet

Ukraine first requested F-16s from its Western partners in the early weeks of Russia's full-scale invasion, but the US didn't sign off on a third-party transfer from its allies to Kyiv until last summer.

Four NATO members — Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands — have collectively promised to send dozens of F-16s to Ukraine, whose pilots are training in the US and in Europe. The fighter jets are expected to arrive at some point this summer, reportedly as early as June.

The F-16s are a notable upgrade over Ukraine's fleet of Soviet-era aircraft; at the start of the war, Kyiv was flying Su-24s, Su-25s, Su-27s, and MiG-29s.

The Fighting Falcon has a more efficient internal layout and better electronic warfare capabilities than many of Ukraine's current jets. It is also a very nimble and maneuverable aircraft, and can be equipped with advanced targeting pods and air-to-surface ordnance to strike ground vehicles and positions.

Since the first F-16 prototype flew 50 years ago, the multi-role fighter has flown sorties in difficult combat environments around the world. It first achieved notable success, though, at the hands of Israeli pilots in the early 1980s.

Israeli Air Force combat aircraft, including F-16s, in June 1982 flew a suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) campaign in Lebanon's heavily fortified Bekaa Valley. Within hours, Israel had destroyed a large number of Soviet-built, Syrian-owned surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and enemy aircraft, without taking any losses. It was a stunning tactical victory after the IDF's heavy losses to SAMs in the Yom Kippur war nine years before.

The US Air Force first flew the F-16 in combat during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq during the early 1990s. The fighter flew more sorties than any other aircraft, and was used to attack enemy airfields, missile sites, and military production facilities.

Later that decade, F-16s were deployed to the Balkans for NATO's Operation Allied Force air campaign against Yugoslavia. There, they flew SEAD, close-air support, and counter-air missions, while destroying enemy radars, fighter jets, and armored vehicles.

During these operations in the 1990s, the Air Force only lost 17 aircraft in combat — a tiny number compared to the tens of thousands of sorties that were flown, according data from the Defense Technical Information Center. Five of those aircraft were F-16s.

Other militaries — like Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt — have also operated the F-16 in conflicts of varying intensities over the years. More recently, the F-16 has operated above Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and has also been used to thwart the Islamic State.

'The toughest scenario that the F-16 will have'

Despite flying in many challenging operating environments over the last 50 years, F-16s are still likely staring down their most dangerous battlefield yet, former US military pilots say.

"Going into Desert Storm, arguably against the third largest army in the world and a very robust air force — that was a very, very tough situation," John Baum, a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel who has logged over 2,300 hours as an F-16 pilot, told BI.

"F-16s from Ukraine going against Russia — absolutely, without a doubt, the toughest scenario that the F-16 will have off of its nose," said Baum, now a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Ukraine has already lost at least 86 aircraft since the war began, according to the open-source intelligence site Oryx, which tracks war losses, underscoring the danger that pilots face in the skies.

Among the threats that Ukraine's F-16s will be facing are advanced Russian air-defense systems like the S-300 and the highly advanced S-400, a formidable fleet of Su-35s and MiG-31s armed with long-range R-37 air-to-air missiles and powerful radars, and early warning aircraft that can detect them hundreds of miles away.

"There is a gazillion ways to detect these F-16s," Brynn Tannehill, a defense analyst and former US Navy aviator, told BI.

Russia's arsenal of surface-to-air systems, specifically, are more modern and advanced than the ones that the F-16 went up against in past conflicts, like the SA-2s, SA-3s, and SA-6s of Bekaa Valley.

"The Russians are bringing high-end equipment" to the Ukraine war, Tannehill said, adding that past F-16 foes in the Middle East like Iraq and Syria were "typically operating legacy Soviet equipment and probably weren't quite as well-trained or equipped" as Moscow is now.

Experts say the F-16 would be a valuable asset to go after Russia's formidable arsenal of air-defense systems and carry out SEAD and destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) missions.

Ukraine already possesses US-provided, air-to-surface AGM-88 HARM, or high-speed anti-radiation, missiles, which can hunt down enemy radars. But Kyiv's Soviet-era aircraft were not designed to interface with these missiles, while the F-16 was actually made to carry them — allowing for more effective and dynamic targeting.

Russia has "probably one of the most robust and advanced integrated air-defense systems in the world, but the F-16 will have a capability to build situational awareness and feed that picture" to the rest of the Ukrainian forces, Baum said.

The fighter jets can then leverage its HARM targeting systems and missiles to strike the Russian radars.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues the fighters will face is the physical layout of the operating environment, Baum said. When Ukrainian F-16s take off, they could be immediately within range of Russian surface-to-air systems, rather than enjoying neutral territory that they can use to their advantage to safely approach the battle space.

Ukrainian pilots may be "looked at and targeted before they even get to begin to do their own tactics," Baum said.

Softening the battlefield

In a defensive role, F-16s can add an extra layer to Ukraine's air-defense network, which has been stretched thin in recent months as Kyiv waited for US lawmakers to approve additional funding that could replenish its dwindling stockpile of critical interceptor munitions.

Ukraine already has AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles in its arsenal, and can outfit its F-16s with these munitions to intercept Russian one-way attack drones, cruise missiles and the fighter-bombers pounding Ukraine's troops with glide bombs. This would help complement Kyiv's existing air defenses, made up of Soviet-era systems and Western ones like US-provided Patriot batteries and NASAMS.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has increasingly gone after Russian air-defense and detection capabilities over the past few months — possibly softening the battlefield for the arrival of F-16s.

In March, for instance, Western intelligence said Moscow had likely grounded its fleet of A-50 early warning and control aircraft after Ukraine shot down two of these planes within a matter of weeks. More recently, in mid-April Kyiv used long-range missiles to take out multiple S-400 launchers and radar stations at a Russian base in the occupied Crimean peninsula.

"Ukraine has been doing a lot to degrade Russia's capabilities to counter-detect their own aircraft," Tannehill said. "And this may be a sign that some of this may have been done in anticipation of getting F-16s, and being able to push them a little further forward."