Although the West’s decision to train and equip the Ukrainian Air Force with American-made F-16s has garnered enormous attention, the war in that country is likely to remain a pitched battle on the ground for months to come, according to US military officials.
Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, told Air & Space Forces magazine in a media roundtable at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference from the AFA: “Simply giving them an F-16 is not going to turn the tables and give them air superiority immediately.” “But it’s a start.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces will continue to rely heavily on their artillery and mobile HIMARS launchers, which fire GMLRS precision rockets with a range of almost 80 kilometers.
President Joe Biden’s administration is also considering providing Ukraine this fall with a limited number of ATACMS surface-to-surface missiles, which have a range of 100 to 190 miles, depending on the model. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated in a CNN interview broadcast on September 10 that he plans to request ATACMS from President Biden directly. The Ukrainian leader plans to visit Washington next week to meet with Biden after his speech to the United Nations General Assembly,
Ukraine’s GMLRS rockets and JDAM extended-range guided bombs have already forced Russia to move high-value targets such as command and control facilities and ammunition depots away from the front line, and the provision of ATACMS would increase the capability of Kiev attack.
“They have allowed Ukraine to reach further behind enemy lines and destroy command and control centers,” Hecker declared on September 15 when asked about the current Ukrainian team.
«The ammunition, if you blow them all up, then they don’t have any. And then if they have a small amount, then they can’t take them there,” Hecker said. «And if they don’t have anyone to command and control, all that slows them down. “That’s what’s been helpful.”
The United States has supplied the GMLRS rockets on the condition that they cannot be used to attack Russian territory, and if ATACMS are supplied, they will almost certainly come with a similar stipulation, in line with US policy on materiel for Ukraine.
Ukraine has used indigenous drones for some attacks inside Russia, including air bases, although it does not typically take credit for those attacks as a matter of policy.
The F-16s that Ukraine will acquire in the future will strengthen the country’s military, but their use will be a challenge.
Hecker, also commander of NATO Allied Air Command, has focused on improving the alliance’s ability to counter air defenses. Hecker said defeating Russian air defenses inside occupied Ukrainian territory would be difficult even with Western weapons.
“It is very difficult for 31 nations to eliminate their integrated air and missile defense systems, much less for a country that does not have the advanced systems that the other 31 NATO countries have,” Hecker said.
In addition, Russia has deployed anti-aircraft defenses in Belarus and on Russian territory. But Washington will almost certainly insist that they stay out of the range of Ukrainian airstrikes to prevent the conflict from spreading.
Due to Russia’s robust air defense, Hecker said Ukraine’s skies will likely remain contested for the foreseeable future, and Ukraine will continue to have to employ tactics such as flying low to use terrain in an attempt to avoid radar before rising.
“I think they’re going to have to do that for a while,” Hecker said.
One area where the F-16s will help is interoperability. Until now, Ukraine has been employing some of its Western-provided weapons on Soviet-era aircraft, such as the US HARM anti-radiation missiles and JDAM extended-range guided bombs, as well as the Anglo-French Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles. /SCALP. Those weapons have proven useful for Ukraine, but improvised solutions can only go so far.
“We don’t just hand it to them and say ‘good luck,'” Hecker said. “They can’t use the same tactics as us because the weapon is not as interoperable on a MiG-29 as it would be on the F-16… they have… they have had some successes, they have had some failures.”
The inability of Ukraine and Russia to establish air superiority, Hecker said, underscores the need for the United States to continue deploying cutting-edge air and space systems.
“They haven’t been able to achieve air superiority on either side,” Hecker said. «Without that, they started throwing [artillery] shells at each other. And what that entails are massive casualties. Cities become rubble. There is collateral damage, like schools, hospitals and that kind of thing, some on purpose and some not. And that’s a war I don’t think we want to fight.”