A US Air Force pilot says the JAS-39 Gripens are the best option for Ukraine.

There has been a lot of concern from Western military officials and analysts about Ukraine’s insistence on purchasing F-16 jets. Concern that these planes would be easy prey for Russian weapons has been voiced with a general aversion to escalating tensions with Russia.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting that the wisest investment for the long-term security of the European continent would be to equip Ukraine with modern combat aircraft.

However, a well-known air warfare expert has pointed out that if Ukraine does receive F-16 fighters from the United States, the aircraft may not be very durable. The F-16 needs specially built airbases, as it is very sensitive, and Russia might be able to locate and attack those sites.

According to Justin Bronk, an air warfare specialist at the British think tank Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), the F-16 has a large air intake under its nose that “sucks anything coming off the ground right into it.”

The F-16 requires exceptionally tidy and well-kept airstrips. The F-16 is designed with a high thrust-to-weight ratio, and “there’s no more weight on the plane than is necessary,” as Bronk pointed out. It also features “fairly light” landing gear.

He did, however, point out that the vast majority of airfields and bases in Russia and Ukraine are extremely antiquated and not fit for use by the F-16 Fighting Falcon or any other Western fighter.

“A lot of work would have to be done to get the Ukrainian runways, of old Soviet design, to be clean enough to use an F-16 without a high risk of foreign object debris (FOD) entering and damaging the engines,” Bronk said. He added that many Ukrainian airfields are too short for a fully equipped F-16 to land.

Bronk continued: “We would be looking at runway resurfacing work and possibly widening work, all of which are highly visible” to Moscow sources on the ground and to Russian satellites.

A former F-16 fighter pilot anonymously echoed the same views. “Yes, it is true that the F-16 is very sensitive to FOD, so the airfield should be designed with this in mind. The Ukrainians would have to do some retrofitting to accommodate these fighters.”

Bronk, for his part, warned that once Russia establishes the location of the air bases housing the F-16s, Russian soldiers may utilize their limited stockpile of long-range missiles to strike the bases and destroy the F-16s while they are still on the ground.

“All of Ukraine’s airbases are in range – because the whole country is in range – of Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles,” Bronk said. Although Russia’s missile arsenal is dwindling, any Ukrainian F-16 fleet could be neutralized with just a few missile launches against a few sites.

A US Air Force pilot says the JAS-39 Gripens are the best option for Ukraine.
JAS-39 Gripen from Sweden.

“Russia can crater whatever it wants to,” Bronk said. “You can’t make lots of them. But if you have to centralize something like the F-16 around one or two bases because you can only prepare one or two to the required level within resource constraints, that’s quite a vulnerable position.”

An American fighter pilot speaks.

To find out more, an American fighter pilot was spoken to asking if arming Ukraine with F-16s is a good idea.

Since the air intake is so low to the ground and susceptible to air aspiration, Lt. Col. Jahara Matisek, a USAF officer, said, “So dispersed F-16 operations become a sticking point.” Pebbles and other junk are damaging the engine. 

This is why many have suggested that the Swedish Gripen fighters would be the perfect solution, because they are designed for dispersed operations from roads, highways, etc.”

However, the kyiv authorities continue to press for the advanced fighter jet. With several NATO states, such as Denmark, considering a possible transfer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov stated that a positive decision could be made within two months. For its part, the United States has already clarified that the proposal is not being actively studied.

Ukraine has infrastructure for the F-16.

Contrary to Bronk’s observation, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Inhat stated that Ukraine already has the necessary infrastructure to deploy and operate Western fighters such as F-16s.

“There are no infrastructure problems at all. American aviation has already landed here, including F-15s and F-16s. These aircraft were at our airfields in 2012 and 2018. We have dozens of airfields – operational, regular – that can be used for this aircraft type,” he said.

The spokesperson also noted that there are also sections of Ukrainian highways in Ukraine where the planes could land. “This is normal practice in every country in the world. In a country that is at war, you have to build infrastructure. This has been done for a long time,” he added.

Not only that, Ukrainian Air Force Commander Serhiy Holubtsov stated on March 20 that Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly the F-16 in just six months. In early March, the media reported that two Ukrainian pilots were in the United States to assess the time needed to train them in handling the plane.

As Poland and Slovakia previously pledged their MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, Russia has threatened to destroy any fighter jets NATO countries deliver to kyiv.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon, a small, light fighter plane designed in the 1970s, is a cutting-edge and battle-tested addition to this danger. It first saw usage by the US Air Force in 1979 and saw extensive use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The Russians are aware that Western fighters with better avionics and weaponry, compared to Ukrainian Soviet aircraft, can somewhat deter Russia. 

In an interview given on the website of the military newspaper Voennoe Delo, a Russian reserve pilot, Vasily Dandykin, stated that the F-16 could pose a serious challenge to the Su-35 and MiG-31 aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Force ( VKS).

“The F-16 is a 4th generation fighter. It will be too tough against our Su-35, Su-35SM and MiG-31,” Dandykin said, adding that the MiG-31 and Su-35 are well equipped to deal with the F-16 if they meet in the skies of Ukraine.

After more than a year of fighting, the use of the air force has been limited, and neither side has succeeded in establishing air superiority. Despite the effectiveness of Russia’s air defenses, Moscow has been hesitant to risk using its air force outside the front lines because it also wants to limit losses.

For its part, Ukraine believes that the situation could be reversed by gaining access to F-16 fighters.

Sakshi Tiwari