The Ukrainian Air Forces could soon be flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon over the skies in the occupied territories, but will these advanced fourth-generation jets change the war?
“The Russians have 1,000 fourth-generation fighters,” General Milley told reporters from the Pentagon after finishing a virtual meeting with the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group.
Milley explained that if Ukraine wanted to contest Russia for control of the air then it was going to need a lot of fourth and fifth-generation fighters in order to gain air superiority.
The Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs went on to say that the smartest thing Ukraine’s allies could have done was exactly what they did do: provide the right air defense weapons.
“There are no magic weapons in war, F-16s are not and neither is anything else,” Milley added, which begs the question: how will the U.S. fighter jet change the war in Ukraine?
In a conversation with PBS News Hour’s Amna Nawaz, Retired Lieutenant General Doug Lut explained that there were two capabilities the F-16 could provide Ukrainian forces.
“First of all, on the offensive side, it can provide precision close air support to ground troops,” Lut said, adding that this would be very important for reclaiming lost territory in the Ukraine offensives likely to take place this year and in the next.
“The second thing it can do on the offensive side is provide deep fires,” Lut continued, which means that it would give Ukraine the ability to strike deeper behind enemy lines.
Lut explained that the deeper fire capabilities would allow the Ukranians to hit important Russian command-and-control centers as well as key headquarters and logistics sites in places they currently can’t reach like Crimea and the Black Sea.
On the defensive side, F-16s could be used in air defense to take on unmanned aircraft but would be far more useful against targets like cruise missiles targeting infrastructure according to Lut.
“So, both on the offensive side and the defensive side,” Lut explained “the F-16 could really make a difference,” though he said it would be months before we saw their use.
Business Insider spoke with Executive Director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Douglas Birkey who noted the Ukrainians would probably have to get creative with their new 40-year-old jets in order to see real results on the battlefield.
“Ukraine’s back is against the wall. They cannot win in a ground-centric war of attrition,” Birkey explained, adding Russia would “ultimately win that fight and bleed Ukraine dry.”
Birkey went on to say that the F-16 could break the stalemate on the ground but later noted that for the aircraft to be effective the Ukrainian Air Force would need to adopt a set of very specific tactics that could exploit the vulnerabilities of Russian air defenses.
“No one is advocating that Ukraine fly F-16s blindly into the Russian defenses. Effective use of airpower requires a mix of strategy, tactics, capabilities, and technology to net desired effects,” Birkey said, adding that unmanned aircraft could be used to overwhelm defenses giving Ukraine’s F-16s an opportunity to hit their targets.
In the end, F-16s might have some effects on the war and their deployment in Ukraine is certainly better than not having them. But the jet may not be the weapon that changes the war, though it could be used to great effect to help retake the occupied territories.
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