New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions

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New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
An F-16 Fighting Falcon banks over a test range at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Apr. 24, 2019.US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Raven
  • Ukrainian pilots and personnel are currently training on American-made F-16 fighters.
  • The Pentagon plans to send highly capable air-to-air missiles that the jets can carry.
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Ukraine is getting air-to-air missiles that its future F-16s would need to battle Russian fighter jets, but there are other missions and missiles that could serve Kyiv's forces better.

AIM-9 and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles could be used for air-to-air combat, but aviation experts and former US military pilots argue F-16s would be more useful fighting off incoming missiles and striking ground vehicles and fortified positions.

The American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon is a very maneuverable, quick, and nimble aircraft, capable of withstanding up to nine "G's," or nine times the force of gravity. It has a good fuel carriage capacity, is capable of staying in flight for extended periods of time, and can be equipped with advanced targeting pods and air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry. The aircraft also has better electronic warfare capabilities and a more efficient internal layout than Ukraine's current fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters.

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
A US Air Force aircraft fuels craftsman marshals a US F-16 at Rovaniemi Air Base in Finland during Astral Knight 23 Part 6 on August 23, 2023.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Albert Morel

Additionally, it has a solid thrust-to-weight ratio, allowing it to perform ballistic maneuvers in the sky. These capabilities, coupled with its physical design, make the F-16 a formidable opponent for Russian fighter jets like the MiG-31 and Su-35, experts and former pilots say.

Fighting enemy airpower

"The F-16 is one of the most capable dogfighting platforms out there," John Baum, a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel who has logged over 2,300 hours in the F-16, told Insider.

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Dogfighting happens when the beyond-visual-range fight either doesn't happen or breaks down, Baum said. In other words, it's a last resort in modern air warfare when aircraft suddenly get within visual range of each other and turn in relation to an adversary that the pilots can see. In this scenario, the F-16 would be more than competent against Russian fighters.

"You can hold your own in a dogfight for sure," Guy Snodgrass, a career naval aviator and former US defense official, told Insider. He added that there are a lot of variables to consider in this scenario, though, such as what type of aircraft the F-16 is going up against. For example, a stealthy Russian jet with good jamming capabilities might have an edge over a baseline F-16.

The F-16 was designed in the 1970s, although it has been updated and modernized several times over the years. Russia's Su-35, meanwhile, is a newer-generation aircraft with certain advanced combat capabilities like a powerful radar and excellent maneuverability.

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
An F-16C Fighting Falcon from the 85th Test Evaluation Squadron flies a test mission March 19, 2019 near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Hoskins

The F-16's ability to dogfight also depends on the skill and training of the pilot and the type of weapons that they take with them into the fight. Snodgrass said AIM-9s and AIM-120s could give the F-16s an "incredible capability" for close and standoff engagements.

The Biden administration announced for the first time that it would send AIM-9M Sidewinder short-range missiles as part of a $250 million security assistance package for Ukraine in late August. This weapon uses infrared heat-seeking guidance to deliver a high-explosive warhead to its target.

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Several days after the AIM-9M announcement, the Pentagon published details of a new contract indicating Ukraine could receive the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).Ukrainian officials later told Air & Space Forces Magazine in early September that the US would send the AMRAAM to Kyiv.

The AIM-120 is a missile that works in all weather and has beyond-visual-range capability for targets beyond the Sidewinder's reach. It's a longer-range improvement over the mid-range AIM-7 Sparrow series, which Washington has already sent to Ukraine.

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
An F-16C Fighting Falcon assigned to the 85th Test Evaluation Squadron shoots an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM over testing ranges near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., March 19, 2019.US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Hoskins

"The AIM-120 and the AIM-9 are excellent weapons and would hold up very well given the pilot is able to employ them properly," Baum said.

Snodgrass said these missiles are "fairly comparable" to Russian air-to-air missiles like the R-27 and R-77. Missiles aren't everything though. In a true dogfight, the best pilot is likely to win.

High risk

But while the F-16 could potentially hold its own in a dogfight against Russian fighters, if Ukraine tries to take on Russia's air force, it will put its limited supply of F-16s and trained fighter pilots at great risk.

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Far more than anything in the air, advanced ground-based air-defense capabilities on both sides have prevented either military from successfully gaining air superiority, and Kyiv's pilots have to factor in the proximity of Moscow's systems — like very capable S-300s and formidable S-400s — when conducting offensive or defensive operations.

High-end surface-to-air missile systems are "everywhere, and neither side seems to have any intention of sending their fighters anywhere near the front lines again anytime soon," Brynn Tannehill, a former US Navy pilot, told Insider. "Neither side is going to push in with their [Su-35s] or F-16s, just because it would be so incredibly dangerous."

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
An S-400 Triumf, also known as a SA-21 Growler, during exercises outside Moscow on December 2, 2010.ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP via Getty Images

The F-16 is a multi-role fighter, and military aviation experts say there are several alternative missions for the aircraft beyond air-to-air engagements with Russian fighters, missions that would probably better serve Kyiv's war efforts.

The two main mission categories when it comes to the F-16 are defensive counter-air and offensive actions, Doug Birkey, the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Insider. In a defensive role, the F-16s are "going to be working to suppress enemy threats posed by manned aircraft, as well as cruise missiles and other unmanned assets, and it's capable of doing all that."

F-16s could use AIM-9s and AIM-120s to protect Ukrainian cities from threats like Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones, Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, or Kh-55 cruise missiles — all of which have been used to terrorize civilians throughout the war. In this role, the aircraft would be able to complement Kyiv's strained air-defense network of Soviet-era systems and Western-provided platforms like NASAMS and Patriot batteries.

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On the offensive, the F-16 is "very capable" in an air-to-ground role or in the suppression of enemy air defenses, Snodgrass said, which could prove useful for Ukraine and help degrade the strength of Russia's defenses.

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
Ukrainian air defense intercepts a Shahed drone mid-air in Kyiv on May 30, 2023.AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File

"What I suspect you would see it primarily being used for, based on what we've seen play out in Ukraine so far, is close air support," Snodgrass suggested. "Being able to conduct attacks on the ground as Ukraine wants to try and drive Russian forces out of a fortified position."

"If Russia decided to send more helicopters or fighters into the zone, then you might see some air-to-air" fighting, Snodgrass added, "but predominantly probably combat air patrol, meaning it's flying overheads, conducting surveillance missions, and then also doing some combat air support."

Needing airpower

In any role, F-16s are not going to be a silver bullet for Ukraine, and its effectiveness will ultimately come down to the type of fighter, if the aircraft is armed with the right missiles, and pilot ability.

"It's less important that Ukraine gets F-16s — it's much more important to think about what weapon systems they get to operate off of these F-16, and how they use them," Tannehill said, adding that while the aircraft will work well in an interceptor role over Ukrainian territory, they're "really going to make life interesting and unpleasant" for the Russians if Kyiv receives advanced cruise missiles from the US like the anti-ship Harpoon that could hunts ships in the Black Sea, or its derivative, the Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response (SLAM-ER).

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New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
Avionics Technicians from 11 Squadron load an AGM-84 Harpoon Missile onto an AP-3C Orion aircraft at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016.Australian Defense Force photo by ABIS Kayla Hayes

If this happens, Tannehill said Russian warships may start "going the way of the Moskva," a reference to when Kyiv's forces sank one of Moscow's guided-missile cruiser with anti-ship missiles in April 2022.

Indeed, just last week, Ukraine used long-range Western cruise missiles to attack a Russian shipyard in the occupied Crimean peninsula, damaging a landing ship and a submarine. But Kyiv has a very limited supply of long-range strike weapons like the Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG, which observers speculated were used in the attack, prompting government officials to repeatedly call on the US and its NATO allies to outfit the military with more long-range weapons, like the ground-based US-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), so it can continue conducting deep strikes.

Beyond the SLAM-ER, the US could also send the AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), Tannehill told Insider in a previous interview. JASSMs are similar to the Storm Shadow in that they are long-range, somewhat low-observable, can travel at subsonic speeds and low altitudes, and carry a warhead of a comparable size.

Ukrainian pilots and personnel started training on F-16s last month after the US finally approved the delivery of the American-made aircraft from several European countries to Kyiv.

According to a copy of the F-16 training concept that Insider obtained from the Danish defense ministry, the program intends to cover language and flight training, as well as conversion to the F-16 platform and how to maintain and support the fighter jet. It's unclear when the F-16s will actually arrive in Ukraine, although some US officials have suggested that it won't be until at least 2024.

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But even when F-16s do eventually arrive in country, Baum said it will still be a huge lift to uphold the supply lines and logistics that are needed to support such an advanced aircraft and make sure the fighters are sustainable in the long run.

New missiles could help Ukraine's future F-16 fighters to take on Russian jets, but the planes will likely be more useful for other missions
An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Alabama National Guard’s 187th Fighter Wing takes off from Joint Base Andrews, Md., April 3, 2012Photo by Senior Airman Perry Aston

Such issues have led some, including Ukrainian officials, to voice their support for Sweden sending its JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets to Ukraine. These aircraft are cheaper to fly, require less maintenance, and are more flexible with their operational requirements than the F-16s. Although the Gripen has previously been off the table, Stockholm is reportedly looking into the possibility of sending some to Kyiv.

At the end of the day though, Baum said it doesn't really matter what Western fighter jet the Ukrainians get — so as long as they get something.

"Anything of substantial airpower capability would be beneficial for the Ukrainians. I think it's less about getting bogged down in the actual platform and the capabilities," Baum said. "We need to get beyond the details of the capabilities of a fighter and just realize the fact that they need airpower at their hands in order to protect themselves."

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