Former F-16 pilot says he would not want to fly missions over Ukraine right now, arguing ‘there is no fighting chance’
Ukraine has repeatedly asked the US for fourth-generation fighter jets like the F-16.
But air combat experts have argued that these aircraft would have little battlefield impact.
A former F-16 pilot said these jets don’t have a fighting chance given Russia’s air defense systems.
Ukrainian officials have long pressed their Western military backers to send them modern fighter jets, arguing Kyiv needs the airpower boost to best the invading Russian forces, and while some in the West agree, others argue fighter aircraft like the ones Ukraine wants wouldn’t stand a chance in the current threat environment.
There have been repeated requests for the delivery of American-made F-16s, leading to debates over how effective the fourth-generation plane would be in the skies. One former F-16 pilot told Insider he wouldn’t want to attempt to fly missions over Ukraine right now, asserting that the aircraft can’t outmatch Russia’s air defense systems.
Fourth-generation fighters “have no business in a modern-day battlefield,” John Venable, a 25-year veteran of the US Air Force, told Insider in a recent interview.
Since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has sought fighter jets from its Western allies to supplement its diminishing fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, which arguably cannot compete against Russia’s superior air force.
Kyiv has asked Washington on numerous occasions for American fighter jets like F-15s, F/A-18s, and F-16s, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told Congress in late February, but the Biden administration has punted on the request, insisting that aircraft like the F-16 are not what Ukraine needs.
Some lawmakers and military officials have pressed the Pentagon to send F-16s to Ukraine, and one retired US Air Force colonel said he believed the jets would help give Ukraine an edge over Russia above the battlefield.
But other air warfare experts and officials have argued that providing F-16s to Ukraine would be too much of a heavy lift for Kyiv’s military, assessing that in addition to the demands of establishing key maintenance and support facilities, these fighter jets would struggle to survive in the present threat environment and provide little impact on the grinding conflict.
As Insider previously reported, Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, argued earlier this year that jets just aren’t needed right now, explaining that “the Russian as well as the Ukrainian success in integrated air and missile defense have made much of those aircraft worthless.”
F-16 fighters would likely be outmatched by Russian air defense systems
The airspace above Ukraine remains contested after 14 months of war. But Russia has enjoyed a numerically larger air force, stronger technical capabilities in its fighter jets, and long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, according to a recent report on Russian airpower published by the Center for Naval Analyses.
The capable SAM systems “have proven extremely lethal” against Ukrainian aircraft and are the “primary killer” of Ukrainian jets, helicopters, and drones, the report notes.
Fourth- and fourth-plus-generation fighter jets like the F-16 that lack stealth features are “completely outmatched in high-threat environments” because of advanced air-defense systems like Russia’s S-400, argued Venable, a veteran and senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
In commentary published on the think tank’s website last month, Venable wrote that the F-16 is not suited for Ukraine’s air force for several reasons, including that the S-400 can outsmart the F-16’s targeting systems and that it can target the fighter jets before they’re in range to fire weapons like Small Diameter Bombs.
“Giving Ukraine more MiG-29s will not help the battlefield. And even if we gave them modern F-16s — I would say more modern F-16s — it’s not going to change or influence the battlefield in a year, much less in time for a spring offensive,” he told Insider in an interview this week, referring to Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.
Venable said that when he was flying F-16s over Europe earlier in his career as a pilot, his aircraft had solid jamming pods that worked against threats posed by the SA-6 and SA-11 Soviet-era SAM systems. He explained that he would have felt comfortable going up against the integrated Soviet air defenses in the 1980s and 1990s knowing he was backed by HARM targeting systems designed to take those on.
“The threat would’ve been high. There would’ve been a good possibility that I would’ve been shot down, but also at least an equal possibility that I could have made it to the target, hit my target, and then I drop successfully and then egress safely from the battlefield,” Venable said.
But there’s since been a “whole leap in capabilities” between those and the current Russian SAM systems that have evolved over time. “I had a fighting chance back then,” he said. “Today, there is no fighting chance.”
Though sending F-16s to Ukraine does not currently appear to be on the table, something the US could do is to train the Ukrainian air force on how to use the fighter jets and bring it up to Western standards, Venable said. In other words, the US could get the Ukrainians oriented toward Western calibration — learning about the specific technology, logistical supply lines, maintenance, hydraulic systems, and fighter tactics.
“The end-game goal of that would not be for them to employ F-16s in combat. It would be for them to be spun up in a Western standard — a NATO standard, if you will — to where when they are able to fleet up to a fifth-generation platform, then that step will be a much more simple one for them to take,” he said.
Although questions remain as to whether or not the US will eventually send advanced fighter jets to Ukraine, NATO countries like Poland and Slovakia have already committed to sending MiG-29s to Kyiv.
“Proud to be on the right side, doing the right thing to help protect #lives,” Jaro Nad, Slovakia’s defense minister, wrote on social media in mid-April after all of the jets that his country promised Ukraine were delivered to Kyiv’s air force. “We Stand w/Ukraine.”
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