The smaller, more agile F-16 could give Ukrainian pilots an edge against Russia.
Russian pilots have a fraction of the training of their Western counterparts. Russian pilots fly various versions of the Su-30 and MiG-35, the latest incarnation of the venerable MiG-29.
In a dogfight, the best pilot will win. Russian pilots suffer from inadequate training, which could also give the Ukrainians an advantage were they to receive the F-16.
An assessment of Ukraine’s pilots appeared in “Task and Purpose” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that suggested they were almost on par with those of the U.S. Air Force.
“These combinations of systems are very difficult for the Russians to handle,” Maj. Drew Armey, an F-15 pilot with the California Air National Guard who trained with Ukrainian pilots, said. “From an efficacy standpoint the Ukrainians are making the most of what they have.”
California Air National Guard Col. Rob Swertfager claimed that Ukrainian pilots were equivalent with American pilots.
“They’re on par with us, just using different equipment,” he said.
Taiwan’s air force routinely confronts Chinese copies of these same Russian Su-30 jets, known as the J-16. The Eurasian Times reported in 2020 that Taiwanese F-16s proved superior to the Chinese Su-30 clones and were more maneuverable in a dogfight. In one case, the F-16s trapped a J-16 fighter from two sides.
The Su-30/J-16 is a much larger and less agile plane. Ukrainian pilots could get a valuable advantage against the Russian air force.
They would replace the aged Soviet-vintage MiG-29s and Su-27s currently flown by the Ukrainian Air Force. Russian fighters have better radars and munitions.
“The Russians have much longer-range radars and munitions on newer jets. They use a missile with a 200km range to take out our S-300 air defenses, which have a range of 150km, then 1,500 kg guided bombs to attack front-line towns like Vuhledar, Bakhmut, and Mariinka. If we had F-16s with AIM 120 missiles and a range of 180km, we could push the Russian planes much further back,” Ukrainian Gen. Serhii Holubtsov told The Times of London.
He estimated it could take six months to get Ukrainian pilots proficient enough to fly the F-16. Ukraine has a list of pilots it has selected to train on the F-16 if and when the U.S. and NATO nations such as Denmark give the green light to send it the aircraft.
Where Are The F-16 Fighters for Ukraine?
So far, no decisions have been made about transferring F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force.
F-16s form the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. Providing Ukraine with refurbished airframes from the boneyard could offer a faster way to provide the aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force.
Several U.S. senators pressed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to send the planes to Ukraine in a March letter.
One concern with the addition of the F-16 is that they could be few in number and vulnerable to attack by Russian missiles.
“All of Ukraine’s airbases are within reach — because the whole country is within reach — of Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles,” Justin Bronk, an air warfare specialist with the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), said, noting that F-16s require clean well-maintained airfields.
That could present a problem for Ukraine would be that the country’s Soviet-era airfields would need retrofitting to handle the F-16, especially due to the plane’s low-hanging air intake.
“So dispersed F-16 operations does become a sticking point because the air intake is so low to the ground and vulnerable to sucking in pebbles and other debris that damage the engine. That’s why many have suggested that the Swedish Gripen jets would be the perfect fit because it is designed for dispersed operations from roads, highways, etc.,” Lt Col Jahara Matisek told the Eurasian Times.
F-16s could improve Ukraine’s overall military capabilities. The U.S. and its allies should seriously consider providing the aircraft to Ukraine to even the odds.
John Rossomando is a senior analyst for Defense Policy and served as Senior Analyst for Counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years. His work has been featured in numerous publications such as The American Thinker, Daily Wire, Red Alert Politics, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, The American Spectator, TownHall.com, and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia, and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award in 2008 for his reporting.