The war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary – and, much like the conflict on the ground, the air war has become a protracted contest for control.
For Ukraine, fighting on the defensive, it has been wise to play for time and wait for any opportunities that may arise from increased western support that it can turn into a decisive advantage on the battlefield.
In this way, the transfers of western military equipment have been key to Ukraine’s resistance so far. The latest round of pledges by Ukraine’s allies has involved advanced main battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 from Germany and the Abrams from the US. But now there is widespread talk of the possibility that the US and her allies could augment Ukraine’s inferior Soviet-era airforce with modern sophisticated F-16 fighters.
Despite vehement denials from Washington, several other states that have bought F-16s have said they would be happy to supply them to Ukraine, including Poland. France has also committed to supplying fighter jets to Kyiv. and But what role might these advanced fighter planes play in the air war as it enters its second year?
In February 2022 it was reasonable to assume the Russian airforce (the VKS) would quickly establish superiority and gain a level of control and freedom to attack Ukrainian ground forces and strike vital civil and military infrastructure.
The VKS was – and remains – one of the largest airforces in the world. It has hundreds of combat aircraft in service compared with fewer than 100 for Ukraine. The VKS also had recent experience of air operations over Syria, where it was instrumental in securing the regime of Bashar al-Asaad. It had also recently embarked on extensive modernisation that ought to have widened a technical lead over Ukraine.
But – in contrast to early expectations – Ukraine’s skies remain contested.
In western military doctrine establishing a measure of control in the air is a textbook prerequisite to protect friendly air and ground forces. Control of the skies is gained by eliminating enemy combat aircraft fleets and their command systems and air defences on the ground (something known as “Sead”, or suppression of enemy air defences).
Nato demonstrated this doctrine at work in the first Gulf war where an air offensive lasting 38 days knocked out most of Iraq’s air defences (and a large proportion of its ground forces and equipment) allowing a startlingly rapid and successful ground campaign. The strategy was also followed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
But it became apparent that despite recent operations in Syria, the Russian air force was ill-equipped both in materiel and doctrine for the sort of complex, large-scale and effective air campaigns that western forces would regard as a basic first step.
Instead, initially intense activity by the VKS lasted less than a week and quickly degraded into limited, and simple ground-support and bombing operations.
Importantly, Ukraine has combined different classes of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to create a robust, overlapping air-defence network. This includes weapons made available by western supporters – including the long-range S-300 from Slovakia, which forces Russian aircraft to fly at low altitudes or run the high risk of being shot down. At lower altitudes, inexpensive and portable air-defence systems (Manpads) such as the US-made “Stinger” are proving effective against Russian low-flying aircraft and – by nature – are hard to be found and targeted.
Importantly, Russian forces operate comparable air defence systems, which has resulted in a stalemate in the air that has translated into difficult fighting on the ground, as seen in the Bakhmut region in recent weeks.
But the arrival of more and better western equipment may allow Ukrainian forces to transition to the offensive to drive out invading forces, which is where they will probably encounter similar obstacles as the VKS has.
This brings us to the talk of transfers of F-16 multi-role fighters to Ukraine. The F-16 “Fighting Falcon” entered US service in 1978 and has been regularly upgraded since. Washington has sold F-16s to several Nato and non-Nato allies, some of whom may seek to provide it to Ukraine as they replace their fleets with new F-35s. While the Biden administration appears to have ruled out sending American F-16s, others have not.
As a fighter, the F-16 would be a better match against Russian MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters than Ukraine’s current fleet. This largely consists of the same aircraft, but in Russia’s case, these Soviet-era mainstays have been upgraded and, importantly, augmented by more advanced aircraft such as the Su-35. This gives Russia an overall technical superiority in the air.
But a fleet of F-16s, modernised to use current Nato equipment, and supported by access to maintenance and parts would be an extremely valuable addition to Ukraine’s air force and could boost Ukraine’s capability to attack ground targets – including Russian air defences, reducing that side of the air-defence stalemate.
But by itself, the F-16 cannot provide a decisive edge. Ukraine will need the F-16 in numbers as well as extensive supplies of replacement parts and armaments. Importantly, it will also need time to train the pilots with the aircraft and its modern weapons.
To mount a modern air campaign of the style Nato would undertake, and so gain more freedom in the air, Ukraine will also need to support its F-16s with other assets such as tanker aircraft, to expand the F-16’s flying range. This would allow for strikes against enemy ground positions and forces far behind the front line.
Most importantly, upgrading Ukraine’s fleet of aircraft would mean modernising its air-warfare doctrine, and moving closer to the more sophisticated principles and strategies currently used by Nato countries. This could give Ukraine an edge in the air war – which would undoubtedly improve its position on the ground.