What It Takes to Fly the F-16: Challenges for Ukraine

What It Takes to Fly the F-16: Challenges for Ukraine

A U.S.-made F-16 aircraft takes off from Bodø airport, Norway.
A U.S.-made F-16 aircraft takes off from Bodø airport, Norway. Jan Langhaug/NTB/AFP

The advanced U.S. fighter aircraft will mark a significant upgrade to Ukraine’s air force, but their impact on the war with Russia will hinge on several factors.

March 5, 2024 5:08 pm (EST)

A U.S.-made F-16 aircraft takes off from Bodø airport, Norway.
A U.S.-made F-16 aircraft takes off from Bodø airport, Norway. Jan Langhaug/NTB/AFP
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Ukraine is set to receive U.S.-made F-16 fighter aircraft within months, an upgrade that Kyiv and its Western allies hope will help level the playing field with Russia’s formidable air force. But the F-16s will only have a meaningful impact on the war in Ukraine if Kyiv and its partners can build and maintain the extensive support and logistics infrastructure necessary to keep these world-class warplanes in the air. 

What is the F-16 and what are its unique capabilities?

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The F-16 Fighting Falcon (also known as the “Viper”) is a major upgrade from the Soviet-era fighters that Ukrainians currently fly. Made by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter—only one generation behind state-of-the-art stealth fighters such as the F-35 Lighting and F-22 Raptor.

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Depending on the model and its upgrades, the F-16 can perform many roles, including both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. In the cockpit, its human-machine interface is designed to enable pilots to make informed decisions quickly, while its relatively advanced radar and munitions allow pilots to engage targets at approximately one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles).

F-16s will add an additional layer of defense to Ukraine’s current air defense artillery systems. Ukraine will likely use its F-16s to intercept inbound Russian cruise missiles and other less-advanced surface-to-air missiles. As a multi-role fighter, the F-16 can also provide air support to Ukrainian ground operations, help deter Russia from gaining control over additional airspace, and help prevent Russian aircraft from conducting close air-support operations along the front lines.  

Additionally, the F-16’s various weapons—which include AGM-88 high-speed, anti-radiation missiles, autonomously tracking AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, small-diameter bombs, and standoff weapons (Storm Shadow cruise missiles)—and its integration within the localized air defense systems, will help Ukraine further align militarily with its Western partners.

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How many F-16s will Ukraine get and when?

Ukraine began requesting F-16s shortly after Russia’s February 2022 invasion, but it wasn’t until last summer that the United States approved a third-party transfer from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. As it stands, these North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations have promised to deliver multiple squadrons’ worth of these fighters (approximately sixty aircraft total) to Ukraine. The first F-16s are reportedly set to arrive as early as June, around the same time that Ukrainian pilots will begin graduating from their training on how to fly the aircraft.

Currently, Ukraine’s aging fleet of fighter aircraft includes several dozen Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-27s. In contrast, Russia flies the more capable Su-35, giving them a technological advantage over Ukraine in any air-to-air combat.

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What will it take to train Ukraine’s F-16 pilots and support crews?

The 162nd Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard, in Tucson, operates the United States’ foreign training unit for F-16 pilots, and several Ukrainian pilots are receiving F-16 instruction there. Training a new F-16 pilot takes up to nine months and close to ninety hours of flight time, depending on the proficiency of the pilot. The course is divided into blocks of academics, simulators, and live fly events, with pilots progressing based on their previous experience and English-language skills. During the intensive course, Ukrainian pilots are trained in principles of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, culminating in a “checkride” that validates their skill level and ability to handle any emergency procedure. Pilots will train further at centers in Romania and Denmark, whose offerings will be similar to U.S.-taught courses, but with added instruction in NATO-specific flying fundamentals.

The learning curve for flying for F-16s can be quite steep, even for experienced pilots. The F-16 is an extremely capable, highly maneuverable aircraft with a large suite of advanced capabilities. Pilots new to the F-16 can struggle to master the wide-ranging skills required to perform the jet’s various missions. As Ukraine adds F-16s to its fleet, it should carefully consider the proficiency of its operators and how they are employed. Without the right mix of training, demonstration of proficiency, and integration into the larger air-power construct, the F-16’s introduction will not have Ukraine’s desired effects on the conflict.

What other military infrastructure is needed to operate this fourth-generation fighter?

One factor that sometimes gets lost in public discussions about military aid to Ukraine, particularly regarding highly sophisticated platforms such as the F-16, is the vital roles played by various people on the ground to keep these aircraft and their weapons systems operating safely and successfully in a high-intensity combat environment.

For instance, for every F-16 pilot, there is a significant maintenance and logistics “tail” of support personnel that accompanies each aircraft to keep it airworthy. A typical package of twelve aircraft needs close to 250 maintainers to remain viable. These include mechanics and airframe specialists, crew chiefs, munitions loaders, and aircrew life support. To create the targeting and mission packages, a robust team of intelligence analysts and targeting experts is required to ensure operational success. Meanwhile, onsite emergency personnel, including firefighters and medics, are needed to ensure safe ground operations. Ukraine will also need to consider stationing formidable surface to air missile defenses near its F-16 operating locations. For symbolic and operational reasons, Russia will likely be interested in attacking any F-16 that is parked on the ground for an extended period of time.

The Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG)—a consortium of defense and military leaders from some fifty countries, including the United States—will aim to ensure Ukraine has not only an airworthy fleet of fighter aircraft, but also the required support personnel, equipment, and spare parts. Without this, Ukraine’s F-16s could be grounded within months. Fortunately for Kyiv, many NATO partners and allies can supply key equipment and munitions to keep the F-16s flying. A steady supply or large inventory of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons will be critical.

Ukrainian commanders planning F-16 operations will be concerned about the threat posed by runway debris. Because F-16s have only one engine—as opposed to the dual=engine MiG-29 and Su-27—they are particularly vulnerable to damage from worn or littered runways. Operating F-16s from such airfields will need to be part of the risk calculations considered by F-16 operators. The F-16 is not designed to operate from damaged or improvised runways, but if it is, careful sweeps of runways and ramp surfaces will be required.

Are F-16s a game changer?

The more F-16s that Ukraine has, the greater the likelihood that commanders can employ these aircraft in higher-impact missions against Russian forces. Depending on the course of the conflict, F-16s could have an immediate and enduring impact on Russia’s operational use of air assets in Ukraine, potentially by disrupting Russian fighter and attack aircraft operations near the battle front. This would complicate any type of air support for future ground offensives.

But more F-16s for Ukraine means it will need more spare parts, more training, more munitions, and more infrastructure—all of which require additional time and precious resources. Infrastructure for complex weapons systems takes multiple years to develop and cohere, which would be difficult for any command to establish amid an ongoing conflict, but will be particularly challenging for a country fighting a large-scale war against one of the world’s largest militaries. The impact that Ukraine’s F-16s will have on the war should therefore be measured over years, not months. But having a Western fighter in its fleet will certainly enable Ukraine to become a more viable air threat over the long term.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, or the Air University.

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