Ukrainian F-16 pilots confront challenges from Russian air defences

    WORLD  18 June 2024 - 22:05

    Ukrainian F-16 pilots confront a significant challenge due to Russian air defences, forcing them to operate at low altitudes to evade detection and interception.

    This limitation severely impacts the effectiveness of their AIM-120D air-to-air missiles, reducing both their range and launch speed, Caliber.Az reports citing Forbes.

    According to Justin Bronk's analysis for the Royal United Services Institute, intercepting Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers armed with glide bombs presents a formidable task for Ukrainian pilots.

    The Ukrainian Air Force is preparing to deploy its fleet of 85 ex-European Lockheed Martin F-16s in the coming weeks, primarily aimed at countering Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers, which have been deploying up to 3,000 satellite-guided glide bombs against Ukrainian targets. These KAB glide bombs are highly regarded as potent weapons by Ukrainian sources, who express frustration over the current lack of effective countermeasures.

    A Sukhoi Su-34 flying at high velocities can release glide bombs up to 25 miles away, with newer variants capable of striking targets at distances up to 40 miles. This extended range often positions them beyond the reach of Ukraine's existing air defences, which include former Soviet fighters and ground-based missile systems. Analyst Justin Bronk underscores the substantial challenge Ukrainian F-16 pilots will encounter in intercepting these glide bomb missions, largely due to Russia's robust ground-based air defence networks.

    The deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries within approximately a hundred miles of the front lines poses a significant threat to Ukrainian aircraft attempting high-altitude operations throughout Ukraine. Although Ukraine may be in the process of procuring AIM-120D air-to-air missiles with a 100-mile range, enabling pilots to engage Russian glide bombers from the outskirts of Russian air-defence perimeters, practical implementation of these missiles falls short of their maximum potential.

    Bronk suggests that Ukrainian pilots will likely need to fly at extremely low altitudes near the front lines to avoid detection and potential targeting by layered Russian air defences. However, launching missiles from such low altitudes compromises their initial trajectory due to dense air and high aerodynamic drag. Consequently, the rocket motors of these missiles burn out prematurely, restricting their speed and altitude compared to launches from higher altitudes at supersonic speeds.

    Launching AIM-120 missiles from low altitude significantly diminishes their effective range, potentially rendering Russian glide bombers beyond their operational reach. This scenario may compel Ukrainian pilots to penetrate deep into Russian-controlled airspace for successful engagements, a risky proposition given the prevailing threat environment.

    One potential resolution to this dilemma could involve adopting longer-range air-to-air missiles such as the European Meteor, capable of achieving distances of up to 125 miles under optimal conditions. However, the Meteor missile is incompatible with the F-16 and Mirage 2000-5 fighters pledged to Ukraine by France. The Swedish JAS-39 Gripen remains the sole viable option compatible with the Meteor missile system, contingent upon the delivery and integration of the F-16s.

    Concerns among Ukraine's allies regarding the rapid influx of new equipment to the Ukrainian Air Force further complicate matters. According to Bronk's evaluation, it could take a year or more before Ukraine fields a fighter-missile combination proficient in effectively countering Russia's glide bombers without exposing Ukrainian pilots to extreme risks.

    During this interim period, Ukraine has prioritized targeting Russian Sukhois and their KAB bomb stores while they are grounded. Recent operations by Ukrainian long-range strike drones, targeting the Sukhoi base in Morosovsk, Russia—located 150 miles from the front lines—reportedly inflicted substantial damage on fighter-bombers and their infrastructure. These drone strikes represent Ukraine's current strategy to mitigate the threat posed by Russian air power until the full deployment of F-16s.

    As Ukrainian F-16s commence operations, drone assaults on Russian air bases are expected to persist. These raids are seen as Ukraine's most effective means of curbing the damage that the Russian Air Force can inflict on Ukrainian forces stationed along the front lines.

    Caliber.Az

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