Two pieces of very welcome news broke this morning from the G7 Summit in Japan.
Taken together with the prior news that the UK and the Netherlands had begun putting together a coalition to purchase F-16s for Ukraine, this is almost a definitive indication that Ukraine will be getting F-16 fighters. Possibly as soon as late September, if leaked US intelligence reports assessing that Ukrainian pilots and crews could be ready to operate the F-16 in four months prove to be correct.
In his most recent Ukraine Update, Kos expressed his doubts about whether the extremely expensive F-16 could be worth it for Ukraine in a war that has been fought with minimal air power influence thus far.
I have the utmost respect for Kos’ analysis and expertise; but, on the matter of the F-16’s utility, I disagree.
For a long time, I was in the “Ukraine doesn’t need F-16s” camp, but especially after doing some research on how Russian air defenses and Ukrainian weapon systems interact for my article on how the Ukrainian Air Force might go about taking down the Kerch Bridge, I have come around to be firmly in the “pro-F-16 camp.” And I have a convert’s zealotry.
The reason the F-16 is needed by Ukraine boils down to one weapon: the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The only weapon that can effectively counter the Russian Mig-31 Foxhound.
The AIM-120 AMRAAM is a radar-based beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. it has an engagement range of 160km+ (its precise range is classified) and uses a 2-stage radar homing ability to achieve radar locks at extreme ranges.
The AMRAAM far outclasses the Ukrainian Air Force’s R-73 air-to-air missile, that only has an engagement range of around 40km.
The AMRAAM uses a 2-stage radar locking process. it first requires a radar lock on the target on firing, which can come from the aircraft’s radar, or via datalink with an AWACS surveillance plane. Upon firing the missile, the missile engages its radar tracking mid-flight. So long as the target remained “in the basket” (within the missile’s radar’s visual cone) the missile will begin radar tracking the target for the rest of the strike.
There were suggestions that the US provide AMRAAMs to Ukraine, but the problem was the first part of that 2-stage process. Ukrainian Mig-29s were not designed to engage targets 160km away, thus their radars aren’t designed to obtain radar locks at such ranges, nor are the Mig-29s designed to obtain radar lock data from surveillance planes.
This might mean the AMRAAM could only be fired at targets at the maximum radar lock range of the Mig-29, meaning it might only have a range slightly beyond what it already is capable of engaging. The Mig-29 could only unlock a fraction of the combat ability of the AMRAAM.
If the UK/Netherlands F-16 coalition also can provide the Ukrainian Air Force with an AWACS like the E-3 Sentry, that would truly unlock the F-16’s combat ability. The E-3 Sentry can obtain radar tracking data at 400+km and transmit that data to F-16s, allowing it to stay hundreds of kilometers behind friendly lines while providing radar data to F-16s even if they are flying low to the ground with limited radar visibility themselves.
So a mission might go like this: F-16s will be flying CAP (combat air patrol) within 60-70 km of the front at low altitudes to avoid radar detection. The section of F-16s would be armed with AMRAAMs. An E-3 sentry would coordinate their movements while flying about 300km behind the front lines, giving it the ability to detect targets 100km behind Russian lines, but avoiding entering into S-400 long-range SAM battery ranges.
If a high-altitude fighter enters into the combat environment (within E-3 Sentry detection range) even far behind enemy lines, the F-16s receive data-linked targeting data and can line up and fire AMRAAMs. Flying low, the F-16s will be difficult to detect on radar, and can strike stealthily because of their low altitude—this would help to prevent Russian fighters from flying high-altitude CAP behind friendly lines.
Who is doing that kind of mission? The Mig-31 Foxhound.
Ukrainian pilots have described how challenging the Foxhound is for Ukrainian pilots to counter. The Mig-31 has the feared R-37M air-to-air missile with a combat range of 150km-200km depending on combat conditions and firing profile.
As the MIg-31 vastly outranges Ukrainian fighters, it generally flies combat patrols deep behind its lines, daring any Ukrainian aircraft to enter its combat profile. Ukrainian pilots have developed evasive countermeasures that help it dodge the long-range shots from the R-37M, but such maneuvers force the Ukrainian aircraft to disengage from any combat missions it was seeking to conduct and attempt a disengagement.
The Mig-31’s long-range air-to-air combat ability has given it impunity. Although Mig-31 pilots are loathed to put their high-value aircraft at risk and thus avoid entering into close combat, the Mig-31s provide a strong deterrent effect—their high altitude gives them radar observation over vast ranges, and Ukrainian pilots will be highly limited in attacking any targets anywhere within their broad radar observation ranges.
Now that Ukrainian pilots have the cheap and plentiful JDAM GPS-guided bombs, if they can approach within 40km of targets, they can lay down a devastating air strike. By flying low and fast, Ukrainian fighter bombers can evade many Russian SAM units and drop munitions from outside the engagement range of all but the most long-ranged SAM units.
I described how such a mission might work on a heavily protected target like the Kerch Bridge in a past diary.
In planning this hypothetical operation, one of the big wild cards was the Mig-31. A Mig-31 patrol could pursue and fire upon a Ukrainian strike team from ranges that would prevent a Patriot Battery or the like from area-denying the region from enemy combat air patrols (CAP).
Even if the strike team survived the encounter, the evasive maneuvers forced upon it would likely force them to abort their strike mission.
The F-16 could completely change this. The mere existence of an F-16 team would make even long-range high-altitude patrols of MIg-31s a dangerous proposition. The lack of Mig-31 data-linked radar lock ability would be a major disadvantage for Russian Mig-31s, and the Ukrainian pilots could force the Mig-31s to redeploy CAP further back where they are far less effective or begin destroying them one by one in long-range engagements.
F-16s would greatly reduce the battlefield impact of the Mig-31’s long-range missiles—which in turn would open up better opportunities for Ukrainian fighter-bombers with JDAMs to strike high-value targets without risking interception.
Even if the F-16 never shoots down a Mig-31 in the entire war, it could give Ukrainian Air Force pilots a greater degree of freedom in bombing Russian targets and change the air-war calculus.