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The United States will train Ukrainian pilots to fly NATO F-16s: how this can affect the course of the war

The House of Representatives of the US Congress approved funding for the training of Ukrainian pilots on American fighters. She allocated $ 100 million for this. The publication told in more detail with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

The bill to amend the military budget must be approved by the Senate, and then signed by US President Joe Biden. If Ukraine receives both Western planes and pilots who know how to fight on them, how will this affect the war with Russia?

"This bill allows the United States to begin training Ukrainian pilots and aircrew members on the F-15 and F-16, as well as other platforms, while the administration continues to consider the transfer of this equipment," Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger said in a statement. one of the sponsors of the bill.

If the legislative initiative is finally approved, it will be a big event in the Russian-Ukrainian war, where the activity of Ukrainian aviation has so far been extremely low. As, however, is the activity of Russian aviation, which is often limited to actions near the front line.

According to experts, Ukraine needs military aircraft so that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) can attack - without air support, it will be difficult to do so.

Plans to transfer the fighters to Ukraine have not yet been officially announced. But the American military press and the expert community are discussing the possibility of supplying Ukraine with NATO F-16 fighters.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that Ukraine is considering the possibility of obtaining not only these machines.

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“There will be planes. The question is, which ones. If someone thinks that F-16s are the solution, then they are deeply mistaken. Our airfields are not ready for the F-16, there are nuances. So perhaps we need other planes. Not only F-16s are good. There are other aircraft of the modern standard. For example, the Swedish-made Gripen,” he said.

What planes does Ukraine have

How many aircraft remained with the Ukrainian Air Force (VVS) is unknown.

Firstly, there is no exact information about how many vehicles were in flight condition by the time the war began. Secondly, aviation suffered losses during the hostilities. Thirdly, Ukraine received aircraft parts from abroad to restore its aircraft.

But the machines that the Ukrainian aviation has are clearly not enough.

Spare parts were supplied from several countries that had the MiG-29 in service, for example from Poland. At the same time, they tried not to advertise the supply too much. Aircraft are being repaired at Ukrainian aircraft factories.

Judging by the footage published by the Ukrainian command on the Internet, the Armed Forces of Ukraine still have a certain number of serviceable combat fighters, bombers and attack aircraft.

Serviceability does not mean high combat capability. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are armed with old Soviet MiG-29s, some of which were upgraded in the 2000s and named MiG-29MU1. However, even modernized aircraft are inferior to Russian ones in terms of their characteristics.

Before the start of the war, according to the World Air Forces 2022 directory, Ukraine had 43 combat MiGs and eight combat trainers. The Military Balance directory reports 37 MIGs. How many of them were in combat-ready condition is unknown.

According to World Air Forces, the Ukrainians were armed with 26 Su-27 fighters (and six training ones), Military Balance says 34 units. Some of these aircraft were also upgraded and were called Su-27-1M. How many aircraft are now in combat readiness is again unknown.

In addition, Ukraine had Su-25 attack aircraft (also partially upgraded). According to Flightglobal, there were 17 of them, according to Military Balance - 31, and Su-24 bombers - 12 or 14, respectively.

Russia has a significant advantage in aviation, not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. Ukrainian MiG-29s are front-line fighters, lighter than multipurpose Su-27s. They have fewer missile hardpoints, simpler avionics and a fire control system.

In addition, Russia uses Su-35 and Su-30SM fighters in the conflict with Ukraine. These are newer versions of the Su-27, which have significantly better performance.

Unequal fights

The American edition of Air Force Magazine published the story of a Ukrainian pilot about the battles of his colleagues with the Russian Air Force.

Noted in the article under the pseudonym Nomad, he noted that it is very difficult for Ukrainian MiG pilots to fight Russian fighters, since the Russians use longer-range missiles capable of flying more than 100 kilometers.

Nomad said that one of his pilot friends, during a recent sortie in the Donbass, turned off the radar so that he could not be tracked and tried to approach the area where Russian aircraft were likely to use short-range missiles.

More often in such sorties, Ukrainian pilots notice Russian Su-30s or Su-35s after they have fired their missiles.

“Our guys are fighting with might and main with Russian pilots who have modern aircraft,” said the Ukrainian pilot.

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According to Nomad, pilots in Ukraine dream of switching to American F-16 fighter jets armed with more modern, longer-range missiles.

Air Force Magazine interviewed Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Colonel Yuriy Ignat, who said that the Ukrainian air force has at least 30 fighter pilots who speak English and are ready to go to the US for retraining.

In addition, technicians who can learn how to service these machines can go to the United States.

"The first stage - training in takeoff and landing, flight from point A to point B - will take several weeks, but preparation for air combat, the use of missile weapons will last about six months," he explained.

Unlike Defense Minister Reznikov, both the pilot and the Air Force spokesman said that Ukrainian pilots would like to get the F-16.

The fact that Ukraine needs the F-16 is also said by the head of the Come Back Alive Foundation, Taras Chmut, who was recently in the United States on a volunteer visit.

He estimates that it takes six months to train on these machines.

What is F-16

There is no talk about deliveries of American aircraft to Ukraine yet. However, as it became known in December, the United States is going to write off a large number of military aircraft, including 47 F-16 fighters of the C and D series, as well as 48 F-15 fighters of two series with the same indices.

Such a number of F-16s would make it possible to complete three or four Ukrainian squadrons.

In addition, the F-16 is in service in 25 countries, many of which will probably want to upgrade their air forces in the future. For example, in 2021, Norway sold all of its F-16s in connection with the transition to the F-35A.

Over the entire history, more than four and a half thousand such aircraft have been produced.

Production of the F-16 began in the late 1970s, and modern versions - the single-seat F-16C and the two-seat F-16D - appeared in the mid-1980s. Since that time, these aircraft have been repeatedly upgraded.

This is one of the most successful fourth generation fighters. In all branches of the US armed forces, as of September 2021, there were 1017 aircraft of the C and D series. The last massive upgrade of the Block 50-52 level began in 1994.

Initially, the aircraft was created for air combat - the conquest of air supremacy. In this it is similar to the Soviet MiG-29. He had good weight and good maneuverability.

In American aviation, it plays the role of a "workhorse" - in air missions that do not require more powerful and heavy F-15s or modern (and very expensive) F-22s and F-35s.

The Air Force turned to Russian pilot Alexander Garnaev, who in the 1980s worked as a tester and tested various modifications of the MiG-29, for comment. The pilot shared his impressions of flying Soviet and American fighters (he flew F-16s).

“Technically, the difference between the MiG-29 and F-16 is like the difference between Zaporozhets and Audi. F-16 - aircraft with side controls, reclined seat back. But the convenience of piloting an aircraft is only a small part of its advantages. The main one is the equipment and armament that is on it, ”the Russian pilot explained.

The F-16 can carry 7,7 tons of various weapons on 11 suspensions (two anti-aircraft missiles on the wing limbs, six pylons under the wings and three under the fuselage).

The combat load of the MiG-29 is three tons. Armament can be placed on six hardpoints and one more pylon for an outboard tank.

Another advantage of the F-16 over the MiG-29 is one engine. This increases the weight return, that is, the ratio of the payload weight to the maximum takeoff. The F-16 is lighter than the MiG by about a ton - and this despite the fact that it can carry significantly more weapons.

F-16 alternative

The Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter that Aleksey Reznikov mentioned is much newer. Its production began in the 1990s. Although it was designed as a multi-role aircraft, it is, in essence, a light single-engine fighter in the same class as the F-16.

Having good flight characteristics, the Gripen can carry a smaller combat load than the F-16 - only 5,3 tons of weapons on 10 suspensions.

Gripen is a more modern fighter, its design uses technologies to reduce radar visibility.

One of the important advantages of Gripen is cheap maintenance. This aircraft, on the one hand, is adapted for flights from airfields with poor conditions.

On the other hand, according to experts, it has the best economic efficiency. The cost of a flight hour for the Gripen, according to Jane's defense in 2012, was only $4,7 thousand, for the F-16 - $7 thousand.

For comparison: in the same rating, the cost of a Eurofighter flight hour was $18, and the F-35 was $31. This amount includes not only fuel, but also preparation for the flight, as well as repair and maintenance of the aircraft.

True, the new Gripen is several times more expensive than the F-16, which, according to the US Air Force website, costs $18,8 million for the F-16C/D. There is no exact data on the cost of Gripen on the network.

Why does Ukraine need F-16

Ukrainian pilots said the main reason they would like the F-16 is the aircraft's ability to perform Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions.

The Americans have been practicing the technique of suppressing the enemy's layered air defense since the days of the Vietnam War. For this purpose, special aircraft, special equipment and weapons were developed.

The F-16 line includes CJ and DJ series aircraft equipped for such missions. They use special weapon control systems containing AGM-88 HARM missiles, which are brought to the source of the radar radiation.

To carry out SEAD missions, the Ukrainians might need such aircraft.

The problem of layered air defense in the war in Ukraine is relevant for both sides. The Russian Aerospace Forces were unable to suppress the Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons, to destroy the system, although it is based on outdated anti-aircraft systems.

One of the reasons for this is that Russian pilots were not assigned such tasks and did not work out the breakthrough of the layered air defense system.

The Russian air defense system forms a single circuit, to which more modern long-range, medium-range and short-range air defense systems are involved. The breakthrough of such a system is a very difficult task, which would require not only the appropriate equipment of the aircraft, but also the special training of pilots.

The United States has experience and opportunities for such training, but several generations of pilots worked out such tasks.

The suppression of layered air defense will be needed by the Ukrainians if they are going to launch an offensive.

In a situation where Russia has an advantage in artillery, armored vehicles, aviation and other weapons, the Armed Forces of Ukraine would need attack aircraft - it is impossible to replace manned unmanned aircraft, primarily because of the low payload of drones.

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington held an online conference on July 13 to discuss the prospects for the development of the Ukrainian Air Force. Its participants agreed that Kyiv needs aviation in order to change the dynamics and go on the offensive.

“We have to give Ukraine something that will change the situation, change the rules of the game. And military aviation is the only way to do that,” said Mitchell Institute expert Heather Penny.

Another feature of the F-16 is the ability to quickly obtain operational information and target designation from external reconnaissance assets. At the Ukrainian borders, reconnaissance aircraft of NATO countries are on duty.

If the Ukrainian Air Force is replenished with American aircraft, it would be technically easier for them to receive information from NATO AWACS radars.

air battles

Russia has already assembled a significant aviation group near the borders of Ukraine and Belarus, but the aircraft can be easily relocated to airfields closer to the combat zone.

Russia is already using Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets in the war. These are fourth-generation aircraft with fairly solid weapons.

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So, a two-seat Su-30SM can carry up to eight tons of missiles on 12 hardpoints. Among them is the R-77 with a launch range of 110 kilometers.

The even more advanced Su-35 is capable of carrying the R-37 long-range anti-aircraft missile, which can be launched more than 200 kilometers from the target.

Fighters of the Su-27 generation (which includes the Su-30 and Su-35) are heavy multi-purpose vehicles, unlike the light front-line MiG-29 and F-16. They have a longer range, more payload, and can perform more diverse tasks than MiGs.

It's hard to say what kind of battles between the latest Russian aircraft and American F-16 fighters could be, since there have never been such battles in history.

In fact, the result of the battle may depend on a large number of factors - situational awareness, the initial position of forces, the experience of the pilots, and so on.

Air combat, techniques and tactics are practiced in special centers in many countries. However, the actual combat situation may differ from the exercises.

According to the American military expert Pierre Spray, in an air battle where many aircraft are expected to participate from two sides, short-range weapons will be used, and the main qualities of the aircraft will be weight and maneuverability.

Spray believes that in large collisions, aircraft will fight with their radar turned off so that they are not noticed.

“Due to anti-radar missiles, we cannot identify the enemy, unless, of course, he is stupid enough to turn on the radar, because then he can be shot down at a distance of 250 kilometers, you just have to want to. And if he is not such a fool, then you will have to come closer to him and see if he is yours or someone else's. And if you are so close, and we are talking about a distance of half a kilometer to one and a half, depending on weather conditions, you have already entered the battle, you will not be able to dodge,” he said.

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