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Ukraine faces many challenges in putting F-16 fighters in combat

After months of intense lobbying, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is excited about the upcoming transfer of Dutch, Norwegian and Danish F-16 fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force.

In many ways, the US-made F-16 is the ideal platform for the Ukrainians. It is multifunctional: it can provide air cover for troops, attack ground targets, engage enemy planes, and intercept missiles.

And it’s available: European air forces have a lot of F-16s and are phasing them out. There is an immediate supply of spare parts; and the F-16 can operate with a variety of weapons systems.

The need is critical, Russian air superiority, especially on the southern front, impeded the progress of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and inflicted heavy casualties on these units. With the right weaponry, F-16s could deter Russian fighter-bombers from approaching the battlefield.

But when the F-16s will fly combat missions is at the mercy of many variables – training programs that are only now starting, installation of support infrastructure, type of weaponry used. There is a delicate balance between the urgent need to put the F-16s in the Ukrainian colors and the thorough preparations needed to get the most out of the aircraft.

Then there’s the question of how many F-16s would make a difference on the battlefield. Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have pledged to supply Ukraine with more than 60 jets, but some will have to be used for training and there will be a maintenance cycle.

Colonel Yurii Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, believes that two squadrons, each with 12 planes, would start to turn the tables. But the F-16 never faced Russian air defenses in the real world. It is critical to establish the best possible role for him.

“The idea of ​​F-16s flying over the front lines and breaking the stalemate is simply not feasible – it’s too dangerous,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Russian air defenses are formidable.”

quick training

Training programs for the first groups of Ukrainian pilots are underway in Denmark, Romania and the United States. Greece also offered to train pilots. That will take longer than the three or four months suggested in some industries for pilots who have no experience flying Western fighter planes.

First, there is a big difference between basic training (takeoff, flight, landing) and operating in combat mode as part of a group of planes within range of well-entrenched Russian air defenses.

An F-16 pilot told military online magazine War Zone that the plane is intuitive. “You turn on, accelerate, you go and fly. But to learn how to fight with it, to learn how to use missiles, it will take us about six months”, acknowledged Ihnat.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that “six to seven months is the minimum period that should be seriously taken into account”.

Even that timetable is ambitious. Western pilots trained on other planes need about nine months to reach full proficiency – and that doesn’t include training for specific combat scenarios. Furthermore, the cockpit layout of an F-16 is very different from that of a MiG-29 – the Soviet-era jet commonly flown by Ukrainian fighter pilots.

In addition, pilots would need proficiency in the English language. Ihnat says about 30 Ukrainian Air Force pilots have adequate English, the absolute minimum needed to form two squadrons.

There would be the added task of learning how to operate Western weapons, such as medium-range advanced air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs), capable of destroying Russian fighter planes at range. On the other hand, Ukrainian pilots quickly adapted to the use of Western high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) in their MiG-29s.

According to CSIS’s Cancian, “The problem is they have to transition to an aircraft that has a bunch of systems that they’ve never seen before, plus there’s this whole air warfare approach that the US and NATO use that the Soviets do not”.

heavy maintenance

As effective as it is, the F-16 requires far more maintenance than a Soviet-era medium fighter, and that would be just as challenging for Ukrainians as flying the platform. Cancian told CNN that F-16s need 16 hours of maintenance per flight hour. It’s also expensive to fly, costing nearly $27,000 per hour.

“There are tens of thousands of parts in an F-16,” Cancian said, “and that flow has to go to Ukraine, so when the plane lands and you take it down to the hangar and you need to fix something, the part is available. ”.

A report by the US Office of the General Accountant last year ranked the F-16 as one of the most difficult aircraft in the US Air Force to maintain: it had not met its mission objectives in any of the previous 10 years.

US officials have been cautious about the impact the F-16s will have in Ukraine and the scale of training involved.

Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe, says the plane won’t be in Ukraine until next year. But he told the media that “it won’t be the silver bullet, [que] suddenly they will start shooting down the SA-21s [mísseis terra-ar russos] because they have an F-16”.

Hecker said that actual proficiency in a sufficient number of aircraft “could take four or five years”. US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall echoed that assessment, saying the F-16 “will give the Ukrainians a capability boost they don’t have right now. But it won’t be a dramatic game changer.”

motivated forces

Ukrainians consider one of the main advantages of the F-16 to be its potential to deter the Russians’ most powerful fighter jet, the Su-35, whose guided bomb drops had a negative impact on Ukrainian ground forces.

Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said last week that success against the Su-35 would force the Russians to move it out of range, allowing the counteroffensive to pick up speed.

Of course, the Ukrainians have persistently surprised the Western military with their mastery of long-range artillery, air defense systems, and tanks supplied by NATO nations. Kendall recently said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen more driven individuals, in terms of wanting to step into the fight and make a difference.”

But the motivation must extend beyond the drivers to a long line of engineers and technicians. The Biden administration has been extraordinarily careful not to involve the US military or contractors in the war effort in Ukraine, and it is unlikely that US technicians will be quoted for the job.

Instead, the teleconferencing maintenance system that helped the Ukrainians fix so many of their Western systems will be a critical link. The Ukrainian Air Force has been working for a long time on improving and protecting the airfields that would accommodate the F-16s.

The Russians prioritized hitting the Patriot air defense complexes, without much joy. F-16 fighters would present a much more tempting – and valuable – target through cruise missile strikes against airfields, surface-to-air missiles and other airborne weapons.

If the Russians have any success, Cancian said, the Ukrainians and their allies would see a bad narrative unfold. “People recognize that equipment is lost, but if it is lost very quickly, very visibly, people get discouraged”.

The last publicly acknowledged loss of an F-16 in combat was an Israeli plane shot down by Syrian air defenses (provided by Russia) in February 2018.

Ukrainian pilots, flying an unknown aircraft into more heavily defended airspace, will face a much greater threat from the most advanced Russian air defenses, including the S-400, Russia’s newest and most capable surface-to-air missile system.

Ultimately, this valuable equipment cannot be rushed into combat. Even if the first F-16s fly their first combat missions next spring, a lot may have changed by then.

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Source: CNN Brasil

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