‘Fragile’ F-16s Offer Better Weapons And Radar For Ukraine


F-16s will make Russian pilots think twice about entering Ukrainian airspace say experts interviewed by Reuters for a detailed assessment on their impact on the war. F-16s from several European countries are now in training centers in Romania, Denmark and the U.S. and the first Ukrainian pilots, those who speak fluent English, will soon be training. Much has been made about the secondhand fighters, which became surplus as their previous owners reequipped with F-35s. They will help, but military officials are apparently trying to manage expectations.

Although it’s faster and more agile than the 40-year-old MiG 29s and Su-27s now flown by the Ukrainians, the F-16’s main benefit is in its nose. Its radar systems are head and shoulders better than the old Russian hardware, giving pilots a much longer and clearer picture of the threat environment. Russians, who fly newer Su-35s and MiG-31s, are aware that they will be more visible to the Ukrainian F-16s and that should keep them closer to home. Ukraine has been using surface-to-air missiles to keep the fighters at bay, and the arrival of the F-16s will free them up to go after cruise missiles and drones.

To go along with the sophisticated radar, the F-16 uses fire and forget air-to-air missiles where Ukraine’s current gear requires guidance from the aircraft to get the missiles to their target. That makes the aircraft vulnerable and greatly increases the number of wasted shots. The F-16 has also evolved into a multi-role fighter air defense platform that can be used for air superiority and ground attack. Lockheed Martin declined to detail how the Ukraine-bound Vipers will be configured.

There are some shortcomings that might limit the deployment of the F-16s. The planes are relatively fragile and not suited to the busted pavement at the unimproved fields that Ukraine relies heavily upon. With that big belly intake, they are also vulnerable to FOD. Russian aircraft have secondary air inlets above the wings so the main intakes can be closed for ground operations. “The F-16 is kind of a precious aircraft, it’s fragile,” Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center told Reuters. “It’s an aircraft that needs a long runway, and the runway is really smooth. But they’re in an environment where (Ukrainian pilots) have been doing distributed operations. … This is not an aircraft that can do that.”

Perhaps the most important thing the F-16 offers Ukraine is hope for the future. Although it can still get spare parts from other former Soviet Union countries, support will dry up for the old Russian planes and Western hardware is the only option for Ukraine in both the short and long term. It’s expected that as the Ukrainian pilots get used to the streamlined controls, ergonomic layouts and logical system operations of the F-16, they will quickly embrace the new ways of doing things.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Our timidity in facing reality and Putin has squandered time and Ukraine lives. While serving overseas, the most oft used phrase I heard was ” If we don’t fight them here, we’ll have to fight them at home”. A no fly zone over Ukraine should have been enforced on day one when pootin had a 30 kilometer convoy of tanks lined up enroute Kiev. F-16’s and A-10’s would have been able to command the skies before pootin had his anti-aircraft systems up and running. We had contract soldiers and operators all over Iraq and Afghanistan the past two decades, why not employ former Air force pilots willing for big bucks to work on the behalf of a country that’s fighting for its existence?

    • Absolutely. Every bit of aid sent to Ukraine has been sent months later than it should have been. And now amid all the posturing and bloviating, the free world sits on hundreds of billions of dollars in Russian money that could and should be turned over to Ukraine. I guess once the wheels of the World Court turn, that will come too late, as well.

  2. As a person who was heavily involved with the early development of the F-16 and A-10 in the 70’s and 80’s, I totally agree with Hans. The A-10 was developed specifically to fight the hoards of Russian tanks we figured would head west through the Fulda Gap. Contrast the ‘road of death’ in Kuwait with what’s going on with in Ukraine. It’s not an accident that the early part of the first Gulf War in Iraq involved taking out Saddam’s air defense system and scaring the crap out of Iraqi pilots such that they were flying their jets over to Iran. Remember Iraqi Army folks surrendering to drones. Imagine a few F-14 Tomcats w/ Phoenix missiles taking out Russian jets right as they enter the Ukraine — or earlier — too. When ‘we’ retire our equipment, I feel that it should be kept in usable status if and when needed to help our “friends.” Instead of sending money to Ukraine, we ought to be sending ONLY physical military aid and expertise.

    • Larry, you and I are on the same page here. We both feel that the better approach would be to send a squadron of A-10s along for ground attack/support and use F-16s or F-15s to fly air cover. If the Russians know that they will have to engage even our “obsolete” older generation fighters, they will probably not be too anxious to enter Ukrainian air space. I know there are a lot of people who feel the Warthogs are too vulnerable to new ground launched missiles, but an early effort to target Russian air defense batteries would eliminate that. If we sent a squadron flown by experienced pilots, we would know pretty quickly whether they would be effective. Any weapon is only as effective as the tactics used with it. Asking F-16s to do close ground support is a misapplication of its abilities.

      • Every time I hear of someone trying to say that they can replace the A-10 CAS mission with an F-16, I go livid! I worked flight test instrumentation on the A-10 climatic airplane c. 1975. We put one on jack stands and tied it down inside the McKinley Climatic hangar at Eglin AFB and “flew” a mission — started it up inside the hangar — after cold soaking it for days. My job was to figure out how long it took the GAU-8 to spin up to full speed so we mounted strain gauges on the gun mount. The pilot fired 30 rounds into a huge bullet catcher for the test. I was near it but aft inside a test hut with the instrumentation. One of the rounds didn’t like being warmed up from -60 deg to whatever temp and fractured shooting two holes in the hangar door. My point being that I KNOW what that weapon is like … seen it firing at Edwards AFB numerous times, too. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those depleted uranium 30mm rounds. The 20mm gun in the F-16 with far fewer rounds on board is a pea shooter by comparison.
        There’s no reason electronic countermeasures and other “tactics” — as you say — couldn’t be used to protect A-10’s and make them a formidable deterrent to the bad guys.
        I don’t know who the hell is running “MY” USAF but I’d like to have a long talk with ’em out behind the hangar. That even the Congress has to order the A-10’s saved is crimminal.

      • OH GEESH … I spoke TOO soon. The Congress just approved a further 12% reduction in the A-10 fleet. BIG mistake IMHO. Give ’em to Ukraine, at least …

  3. Watching Russia struggle with a relatively weak county like Ukraine for the past 2 years I don’t fear Russia taking over the world. I believe that Russia knows NOT to attack a true NATO county. As the West would eliminate all Russian military assets in short order. All Putin has is Nukes, and that is a really scarry proposition for both sides, and He knows it.

  4. My favorite sources on Ukraine are retired US Army Col. MacGregor and Columbia UNiversity history professor Jeffery Sachs. Judge Napalatano has a you tube channel and does incredible interviews with people that are well informed on Ukraine. The Westerm media has been worthless on Ukraine. They repeat all of the political propaganda.
    There is nothing that can save Ukraine unless NATO attacked with everything it has. Then we would have WW3 and it will go nuclear.
    The F16s will never see air to air engagement. They will be destroyed on the ground just like all of the tanks that have beem sent to Ukraine.
    Prolonging the war only means more dead Ukraines. The estimated current kill ratio is 10 Ukraines for every Russian and Ukraine death is over 500,000. Plus another 500,000 + wounded. These number actually come from the cementerys in Ukraine.
    And this is a war that could have easily been prevented thru negotiations.

    • William – Exactly what I’ve been saying since day 1 of this bloody mess that has occurred by 2 Corrupt nations (in which Ukraine has the upper hand over Russia on that issue). Prior to this the Ukrainian Black Market was worldly renown in it’s reputation for Black Market Sales of arms etc… Now they have many MANPADS as well as other hi tech sought out weapons’ that any stooge can purchase with enough $$$$.

      We have an Olive Drabbed T-Shirted former Comedian worldwide beggar that has self-proclaimed himself as the President for Life – Field Marshall of the Ukrainian military. If the west sends him his pitiful pittance this cycle will continue – with the true losers the poor Ukrainian farmer and Lay worker caught up in this racket!

      Putin is not going to let go of this!!! Ukraine is his Cuba!! Negotiations is the only way out of this…

      The scary part is that the other nation with as many Nukes as Putin is the USA. I was in 74 to 78 as a B-52 Crew Chief and we loaded nuclear weapons (which I had no clue of the Yields then).

      With Wikipedia I’ve found the yield of the B-28’s and AGM-69 SRAM’s that we loaded (replacing the Hound Dogs and quails). Hiroshima is now considered a TACTICLE Yield!! 1 AGM-69 SRAM was considered tactical at a max of 30Kt’s.

      What we have now under Sea and in the Missile, tubes must be much larger than what was in the 70’s.

      With the current administration and all of these worldly fires around the world, I fear incompetence of his committee (Cabinet) could launch one of these by mistake.

      Another mistake could be the Russians out of fear of losing their goals in Ukraine. We were prepared to use them during the Cuban Missile Crisis!!

  5. Very true. Let’s keep it professional and on topic. Interested in relevant comments from knowledgable F-16 pilots, not social media bots.

  6. I’ll try to get back on topic! Going to be interesting where the Ukrainian military will operate these F16’s. Years ago in a previous career, I was involved in testing tires for the F16. Testing them on rough or unimproved fields was not something that was tested. Also the intake position being exposed to FOD is another good point. One small stone ingested will trash an engine very quickly.

  7. I once read about a Russian Air Force general offficer who toured a US airbase
    As the morning ramp FOD walk was being conducted, he noticed an airman picking up the broken tip of a very small drill bit.

    He commented “In Russia, we don’t worry about anything smaller than a hammer.”