Ukraine must rely on Western weapons to win the war with Russia. Ukrainian officials and many Western pundits have argued that providing Ukraine with advanced fourth-generation fighters, such as the F-16, is critical to success. They are wrong.
Have you wondered why there has been little coverage of how airpower—Russian or Ukrainian—is affecting the war? There’s a reason for that: Classic airpower has been sorely absent from the battlefield.
Shortly after the invasion, we were treated to stories about the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the Ukrainian ace who was shooting down Russian fighters left and right with his fourth-generation MiG-29. It turned out that this ghost was a myth.
Those tales, however, propagated the notion that well-flown fourth-generation fighters could wreak havoc even in the high-threat environment over Ukraine. In fact, they’ve done nothing of the sort.
Fourth- and more advanced fourth-plus-generation fighter jets are those designed and built from the late 1970s through today’s F-15EX. They boast advanced engines, maneuverability, avionics, and all-aspect air-to-air missiles. They are useful in low- to medium-threat environments such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Unfortunately, without stealth features, they are completely outmatched in high-threat environments due to the presence of surface-to-air missile systems like Russia’s S-400, perhaps the most advanced in the world.
The F-16 was initially fielded before either the MiG-29 or the Su-27—Russian/Soviet-made jets currently being flown by the Ukrainian Air Force. And while the F-16 has gone through several significant upgrades, its airframe has remained basically the same for the past 45 years.
In the late 1980s, new models with advanced avionics and targeting pods were fielded. In the 1990s, new models arrived with the HARM Targeting System to sense SAM radar emissions, determine their location, and allow the F-16’s “Weasel” missile system to take them out. Those jets might seem ideal for Ukraine, but they would be flying against the S-400. Fielded 15 years after the HARM system, the S-400 was specifically designed to outclass the F-16’s systems in everything from detectability to missile range.
In interviews in 2017, more than a dozen F-16 pilots said that fighter losses from such a duel would be unsustainable. Each believed that the only jet capable of successfully taking on the S-400 was the fifth-generation stealth fighter designed specifically for that fight—the F-35.
Two other standoff weapons hn the F-16 portfolio have also been touted as potential game-changers: the Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB, and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.
SDBs have small wings that unfold after release, allowing them to glide dozens of miles, a distance determined by the altitude and speed at which they are released. But S-400s are able to shoot down a fourth-generation fighter long before it reaches the maximum range at which an SDB could reach its target.
The JASSM, on the other hand, is a stealthy cruise missile that can fly hundreds of miles to hit the target. Unfortunately, the only F-16 in the U.S. inventory that can carry them are our newest F-16s. Giving the Ukrainians our most modern F-16s would cause the U.S. to incur unacceptable risk for virtually no gain in this conflict.
If the war in Ukraine teaches us one thing, it is that fourth-generation fighters have no place over or near a modern, high-threat battlefield. Any F-16 we could afford to give them would be relegated to the same ineffective roles and missions as their MiG-29s.
While the sentiment behind giving Ukraine U.S. F-16s is noble, sending even the best fourth-generation fighters to face a fifth-generation SAM threat would be a costly mistake and have virtually no impact on the war.
U.S. strategy should focus on giving the Ukrainians more air defense systems, such as the Patriot system, to deny Russian airpower, while continuing to supply them with the artillery, rockets, and tanks required to take the fight to that enemy.