Russia’s Su-35 fighter jet may appear superior or equal to U.S.-made fast jets, but would ultimately fall down when pitted against any F-16s promised to Kyiv and operated by Ukrainian pilots, experts have told Global Defense Corp.
Expert at Global Defense Corp explains that F-16 has better avionics, electronics, radar suite and armaments than Russian jets.
Russia has employed its Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet, which it hails as a fourth-generation aircraft with fifth-generation technology, in its ongoing war in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian air force said on Monday that Russia’s air force had lost an Su-35 fighter jet that “experienced a ‘negative take-off’ in the territorial waters of Ukraine” in the country’s southern Kherson region on Sunday. Russia’s Defense Ministry had not commented on this at the time of writing.
The quest for air dominance in the Ukraine war has come into sharper focus as Ukraine appears to inch closer to receiving Western-made fighter jets, such as F-16s, which Kyiv has long requested. The F-16s, which have attracted more attention than other Western-made fighter jets, are the most likely candidate to upgrade Ukraine’s Air Force, experts said. There are several iterations of the F-16, and it is not clear which model Ukraine would theoretically receive.
Ukraine is currently operating a fleet of Soviet-era jets broadly similar to the Russian air force. The provision of F-16s to Ukraine would mark not just a major technological shift towards Western aircraft, but also a move towards NATO military doctrine, experts observed. There are several obstacles—both political and logistical—to providing the aircraft to Ukraine, but conflict observers are increasingly confident that Ukraine will soon receive pledges of F-16s.
Russian Su-35s are unlikely to end up directly facing off against U.S.-made F-16s in Ukraine, according to former British military officer Frank Ledwidge. But the Su-35s are considered to be among Russia’s most advanced 4.5 generation fighters, he told Newsweek, and are “specifically designed to shoot down” aircraft such as the F-16.
The Su-35 is a modernized version of the Su-27 fighter, designed to “significantly increase engagement effectiveness against air, land and sea targets,” according to the United Aircraft Corporation, an aerospace and defense corporation largely owned by the Russian government. The maiden flight of the Su-35 took place in February 2008, according to the UAC.
“On paper, it can be argued that the Su-35 has an edge over the sorts of F-16s the Ukrainians are likely to get, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” according to David Jordan, co-director of the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London, U.K.
“The Su-35’s specification may indicate it’s a better aircraft by many measures,” former British Royal Air Force Senior Commander and Air Marshal Greg Bagwell told Newsweek, but the true picture “is actually far more complicated than that.”
There are several other factors that need considering in a comparison of the two jets, according to experts. Although the F-16 airframes date back decades, and Ukraine is unlikely to receive the latest avionics, how the jets would be used makes a decisive difference on the battlefield.
Some Russian air warfare tactics “appear to be overly rigid,” Jordan said, adding this could “hinder them, no matter what they were flying.”
The quality of the pilots is key, Jordan added. Although no country has yet promised to furnish Ukraine with F-16s, several, including the United States, have pledged to support the training of Ukrainian pilots on the advanced aircraft.
On Saturday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that as the training takes place “in the coming months, we will work with our allies to determine when planes will be delivered, who will be delivering them, and how many.”
“We haven’t seen much to suggest that the Russians began the war with any particularly superior skill sets to the Ukrainians,” Jordan added. The training given to Ukrainian pilots in the short-term will allow them to make some use of any F-16s they receive, Ledwidge said. But being able to use them to maximum capacity will take years, he added.
The situation awareness that the aircraft offers up to the pilots on each side is also critical, experts emphasized.
“If the Russians are flying around knowing roughly where the Ukrainian aircraft are while the Ukrainians know almost exactly where the Russians are, then the Ukrainians would potentially have an advantage even before they get in visual range of one another (and vice-versa),” Jordan said.
“I would suspect that the F-16s in Ukrainian hands will represent a formidable challenge,” Jordan added.
Retired Air Commodore Andrew Curtis, formerly of the British Royal Air Force, said: “In terms of how the F-16s fare against Russian Su-35s, that will depend on the air-to-air weapons available to the Ukrainians. If it comes to dogfighting, the F-16 is still one of the best in the world. However, the Russian pilots are likely to try and fight a stand-off battle, using medium and long-range missiles. If they can do this successfully, that may tilt the balance in the Su-35’s favor.”
As of Monday, Russia has lost three Su-35s since the start of all-out war in Ukraine last February, according to the Dutch open-source outlet, Oryx. However, this tally includes only visually confirmed losses, so the true figure may be different.
The Su-35 has made relatively few appearances throughout the war, which raises questions over just how many Russia has at its disposal, and just how good they are, Bagwell added.
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