F-16s are on the way to Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden‘s approval of the move at the G7 conference will certainly provide Ukraine with some much-needed aerial firepower – but combat air power is heavily dependent on modern technology and some F-16s are vintage jets.
When the F-16 Fighting Falcon first flew in the late 1970s, it was a very light, agile and capable platform, and it became the most widely exported fighter jet in the world.
Notwithstanding the physical agility of the airframe and the impressive thrust-to-weight ratio of the F-16 aircraft, the combat capability of modern fighters is heavily dependent on the technology of its avionics.
The radar is a key component of a fighter’s capability; as technology has enabled radars to see further, and with greater clarity, so have deception techniques matured.
A common fighter manta is “He who sees wins” – the earlier you see the enemy fighter the earlier you can get a missile in the air. In the Second World War, fine strips of aluminium were dispensed to confuse enemy radars, but modern stealth technology and a variety of ingenious electronic measures are now exploited to improve survivability.
What level of F-16 capability will Ukraine be offered?
Ukraine is highly unlikely to receive brand-new F-16s – they are too expensive, and the West will be very reluctant to risk high-end capability in this conflict.
But, older fighters have less capable radars, are not stealthy, and have older avionics. The Volkswagen Golf MK1 car was in production when the first F-16s were delivered – the latest incarnation (MK8) is still called a Golf, but the modern variant is packed full of modern technology and is a much more capable car.
Although older F-16s are still capable (like the Golf MK1), many nations are now looking to upgrade their fleet of F-16s with the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, thus making several “high mileage” F-16s potentially available.
However, like cars, as jets get older, so they become less reliable and become more heavily dependent on spares.
In addition to radar, modern fighters also need state-of-the-art electronic warfare, defensive aids, infrared sensors, link-16 datalinks, and a computer system to programme and deliver the latest generation of high-tech air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
In addition, trained pilots and groundcrew, weapons, spares, ground planning facilities, intelligence, and a suite of supporting infrastructure are also required.
Will these weapons be provided to Ukraine?
Modern air-to-air missiles married to a modern F-16 radar would pose a credible threat to modern Russian fighters, but anything less risks emboldening the Russian Air Force. The grave risk is that Ukraine “gets what it asked for” – an F-16 capability – only to find that reality falls well short of expectation.
Notwithstanding the tactical challenges, the G7 announcement was incredibly important for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin had almost certainly judged that the West’s appetite to continue supporting the war might wane at the year’s end, so despite the dismissive rhetoric, the decision to help Ukraine develop its own long-term combat air capability will be a major setback and grave concern for Mr Putin.