How Russia Could Spot Ukrainian F-16s Before they Even Got off the Ground
Should Ukraine ever receive F-16 fighters from the US, the jets might not last very long.
The F-16 is so fragile that it requires specially prepared airbases — and those bases can be identified and targeted by Russia, one expert says.
The F-16 has a large air intake under the nose that “sucks everything from the ground directly into it,” Justin Bronk, an air-warfare analyst for Britain’s Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) think tank said during a recent episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast. “So F-16s typically require very clean, very well-maintained air bases.”
The F-16 has “fairly lightweight” landing gear because it is designed to have a good thrust-to-weight ratio and “there is no more weight on the jet than there needs to be,” Bronk said.
Russian fighters are built to operate on more primitive airfields, while Western carrier-based jets like the F/A-18 are designed to absorb the shock of hard landings on a floating runway.
“You would have to do a lot of work to get those Ukrainian, old Soviet-pattern runways to a clean enough state to use an F-16 without high risk of foreign object debris going in and damaging the engines,” Bronk said. In addition, a lot of Ukrainian airfields are too short to be used by a fully loaded F-16.
“So you’d be looking at resurfacing work on runways and potentially extension work, all of which is highly visible” to Russia’s satellites as well as to sources Moscow has on the ground, Bronk added.
Despite being numerically and technologically outmatched by Russian aircraft and air-to-air missiles, Ukraine’s air force has proven remarkably resilient and resourceful. But so far, Russia has chosen to not to use its limited stockpile of long-range missiles against Ukrainian airbases because Ukrainian airpower “doesn’t pose a massive threat,” Bronk said.
But that will change if Western-made jets start operating from Ukrainian airfields. “All of Ukraine’s airbases are within reach — because the whole country is within reach — of Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles,” Bronk said on the podcast.
Though Russia’s arsenal of missiles is shrinking, they would only need to be launched against a limited number of targets to neutralize any Ukrainian F-16 fleet.
Despite struggling with accuracy in its airstrikes, “Russia has the ability to put craters in things that it wants to,” Bronk said. “It can’t do loads of them. But if you’re having to centralize something like the F-16 around one or two bases because you can only prepare one or two to the required standard within the resource constraints, that’s quite a vulnerable posture.”
Western bloc nations have already sent large quantities of weapons and ammunition — including tanks, artillery, and guided missiles — to Ukraine, but they have yet to send jets because of concerns about Ukrainian unfamiliarity with Western aircraft and for fear of provoking Russia.
Since Russia invaded in February 2022, Ukraine has been pleading for Western jets to replace its dwindling fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, which are badly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s air force.
NATO members Poland and Slovakia have agreed to send jets to Ukraine, but they are providing older MiG-29s, which Ukrainian pilots and mechanics are accustomed to but don’t have much capability beyond that of the MiG-29s Ukraine already has.
Still, as the conflict drags on into its second year, the pressure to send fighters may prove irresistible. For months, there have been various reports that several Western nations — the US, Britain, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden — are considering sending their jets.
Even a small number of Western fighters would be enough to get the Russian Air Force “to back off, at least for a while,” Bronk said, and Ukraine’s leaders would probably be happy to have any Western jet that is reasonably good condition, but one of the main questions about any such transfer is which jet would be best suited for Ukraine.
US-built F/A-18s or French-made Mirage 2000Cs and Rafale Ms would be “reasonably suitable” for Ukraine’s “relatively austere runways,” Bronk told Insider in an email. But those jets may not have much utility due to limits on what air-to-air munitions Western countries will provide.
The Mirage 2000C can only use MICA missiles and would be “totally out-ranged in air-to-air terms,” Bronk said, adding that while Rafale Ms use the more capable Meteor missile, “it’s highly unlikely” that France would send Rafales or that Ukraine could support dispersed operations with them.
The F/A-18 would require AIM-120C8/D3 missiles to conduct effective attacks from low altitudes on Russian fighter patrols at medium- or high-altitude, Bronk said, but the US may not provide those missiles out of concern that Russia would capture some and gain access to their advanced components.
Bronk has argued that Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen fighter would be the best choice because it is designed to be easy to maintain and to operate from rugged airstrips.
“Gripen is the only option that combines austere and short runway capabilities with comparative ease of maintenance, high in-cockpit automation, and the Meteor missile,” Bronk told Insider.