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Q&A regarding 'F-16s for Ukraine', Part 1
On 14, 15, and 16 September, Su-34s of the VKS flew dozens of air strikes deploying MPK and UMPK glide bombs (colloquially known as ‘KABs’, in Ukraine, meanwhile). For a detailed description of their effects and what it is to be on the receiving end of them, (including photos), please see the Twitter thread here.
According to the GenStab-U (yes, sometimes their releases are useful, at least for deduction of what’s going on), they’ve targeted the rear section of almost the entire frontline, from Strilecha (on the border between north-eastern Kharkiv Oblast and Russia), via Stepove and Kotliarivka, down to Prechystivka (west of Vuhledar), but especially Mala Tokmachka, Robotyne, and Orikhiv.
Additionally, massive rocketing by BM-27s and BM-30s was reported from no less than 31 different municipalities in southern Zaporizhzhya and south-western Donetsk alone and: Russians deployed several S-300s in ballistic mode to strike the northern Kharkiv area.
….which is bringing me back to the topic of air warfare and the fact I’m still receiving lots of queries like what do I think are ‘Ukrainian F-16s’ going to be able of doing, and why, and similar. To make sure: I’m not ignoring your questions. Rather ‘collecting them for the next opportunity’. I’m - physically - not able to answer all the e-mails, private messages etc. coming my way. Thus, I’ll try to address your questions in form of additional Q&A sessions.
This one, to contain three parts, is going to address the issue of ‘F-16 for Ukraine’.
Many of questions about this topic I’m receiving are in style of this one:
What is your opinion about this or that video (usually followed by a link to one or another Youtube channel) discussing deliveries of F-16s to Ukraine?
I’ll not start with posting a link to any specific videos: I’ve been a victim of mobbing more often than enough in my life. Thus, I’ll not post any links to videos I’m about to comment. There’s no reason to do so: no matter how professionally prepared some of them are, I haven’t paid attention about them before. Actually, most of those I’ve seen were those where you’ve sent me the links. That said, from watching them, my conclusion is that they’re ‘irrelevant’ to me, mostly because their authors did not do a similar amount of research into specific air wars like I did. As result, to me their work appears superficial, at least as often misinforming. Still: I do not want to point with finger at anybody.
0.) For the start, and for you to understand my answers to questions about ‘F-16s for Ukraine’, I need to define and to communicate the way I think, so you can understand why do I think the way I do.
Nationalities, ethnic-, religious- or similar associations, or such things like colour of the skin - all simply do not matter to me. I’m ‘made that way’: I do not care about them. Or if: then I ‘just’ despise racists and any kind of nationality/religion-based extremism (or whatever appears to me as such). This, BTW, is why I often forget to ask people where are they from: I do not think about such issues. In turn, when asked to guess, I’m almost always wrong regarding people’s origins.
Point is: I do not consider - for example - US, or Israeli, or British, or Iranian, or French, or Ukrainian, or whatever sources (whether pilots, or the media, social media or who/whatever else) ‘more authoritative’ than (for example) any Egyptians, or Iraqis, or Syrians, Yemenis, Serbs, Angolans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Russians etc. And, nope: I do not consider ‘F-16 for better’ – for example, because ‘its US-made’, and/or ‘MiG-29 poorer because it’s Soviet/Russian made’.
If I care about ‘origins’, then for orientation purposes only: for example, the origins of one or another aircraft type are helping me orientate in regards of requirements to which it was designed, and why was it equipped the way it was.
That, however, shouldn’t mean that the quality of some aircraft type’s deployment in a conflict if anything like ‘pre-programed’!
As next, let me ‘out’ myself as somebody who actually can’t care less about advertised performances – especially ranges/engagement envelopes – of different weapons. For me, that’s really: ‘advertising’ by manufacturers of the weapons in question. No matter how often repeated by all sorts of fan-boys (whether ‘professional experts’ or ‘just fans’ in the social media), these figures are entirely irrelevant to me, and thus - and at most - I’m using them (if at all) for comparison purposes. Say, ‘weapon XY is advertised as having the range of 100km, but, actually'….’
For similar reasons, and contrary to the mass of my colleagues, I’m rarely studying ‘industry’, having no connections in the ‘industry’, and indeed next to never going even to air shows, press- and other types of conferences, or any kind of official/semi-official presentations. Instead, I’m fully focused on studying ‘combat experiences’. With other words: all that matters to me is what was proven (or not) in combat.
Next point is that if I have a bias which I’m ready to openly admit, any time, then that when it comes to air warfare, for me it is so that, ‘everybody is lying until proven otherwise’.
To me, all that matters in regards of, for example, outcome of some air combat, or air war, are ‘facts’ – and here I’m going to extension to find out. That’s why I’ve studied so many ‘out of area’ and ‘nobody cares about that one’ air forces and air wars: because it so happens that these have fought some of most intriguing air combats and air wars since 1945. This is why you’re often going to hear me mentioning examples very few people know about (or have ever heard about).
Finally, I do not consider any kind of claims, nor any kind of aircraft- or weapon types for ‘proven in combat’ until I know not only (and ‘at least’) the name of pilot and the serial number of aircraft that fired a missile or gun/s, but also (and ‘at least’) the name of the pilot that was shot down (if not the serial number of his aircraft, too). To me, it doesn’t matter what is ‘officially confirmed’, until I’ve cross-checked it and convinced myself.
Bottom line: feel free to call me ‘biased’ because of all of my points of view – and, even more so, the points of view that are about to follow. Be sure, I do not mind (after all, we all have our biases, don’t we?).
Now to your questions….
1.) In one of videos I’ve been asked about, the commentator starts with a statement like, ‘F-16 can engage and destroy any targets within range of 150km’.
Where’s the ‘problem’?
Oh dear…. There are lots of ‘problems’! So many, I have no idea where to start….
1.) F-16 variants like the one that is most likely to be delivered to Ukraine as first – F-16AM, as operated by the Dutch, Danish, or Belgain air forces - are equipped with a radar (APG-66) that can, under ideal circumstances, detect an enemy aircraft from 150km away. It’s got to be a big aircraft, though: something with a radar cross section of well above 3-5 square metres.
However, in no way should this mean that the F-16AM can now start shooting at that enemy aircraft, and even less so on UAVs/drones from 150km range. That, my dear, is a pipedream.
2.) Essentially, the commentator in that video says that thanks to F-16s the PSU should become capable of countering VKS fighter-bombers deploying ‘bombs’ (I guess that the author/s mean MPK/UMPK glide bombs?) from ‘safe distance’ (see: stand-off ranges, like 50-60km behind the frontline).
While its maximum theoretical/advertised detection range might be out to 150km, in combat, I do not know of any case where the APG-66 (F-16AM’s radar; mind, this is different to the radars installed in, for example, Turkish and/or Pakistani F-16C/Ds) has detected a fighter-sized target from more than around 60km.
The principal – and longest-ranged – air-to-air weapon of the F-16AM is the AIM-120C.
This might have an advertised range of 100-105 kilometres, but, its combat-proven range is around 55km, 60km at most. That’s something like maximum known range at which it has ‘killed’ a target in combat. For example, see the Dutch F-16AM that smacked a Serbian MiG-29 under such circumstances, over Kosovo, back in March 1999 (for details, please see here). Or the Turkish F-16C that splashed that Russian Su-24M over north-western Syria, in November 2015 (for details, please see here). Or the Turkish F-16Cs that splashed an Assadist Su-24MK2 from around 50km, in February or March 2020 (there might have been a slightly longer-ranged kill of an Assadist L-39 around the same date).
For comparison: when, in February 2019, the Pakistanis tried to deploy their F-16C/Ds to shoot AIM-120Cs at Indian Su-30MKIs from ranges around 75-80km, all of these have missed. Few migrated, gliding all the way to India… (for details, please see here).
This is imposing the question: why is there such a ‘dramatic’ difference between the ‘advertised’ maximum range and actual effective combat range in combat?
There are lots of reasons. One of most important ones coming to my mind is that because the maximum advertised range is something like ‘best achieved during testing’. It’s pointless to go discussing the quality of testing, or ‘theoretical ranges’ calculated on basis of aerodynamic performance of some weapon. That’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that no matter how realistic, all testing is run under ‘controlled conditions’: test-pilots (actually: test-teams) must not expect their base to be subjected to ballistic- or cruise missile attacks at any moment in time, have lots of time to prepare themselves, their aircraft, the weapon – and the target - and there’s no threat of some unknown opponent suddenly appearing to shoot at them. If nothing else, test-pilots know how and when to pre-position their aircraft into ‘ideal’ position to make use of the weapon, and where to search for their targets. Air war is next to never fought ‘under ideal circumstances’.
Actually, most important fact on hand is: the longest-ranged AIM-120-test-shots were not scored by F-16AMs. Because that jet and its radar couldn’t detect an incoming target from a range that would be sufficient to take such a shot.
Conclusion is on hand: IF (…and that’s a ‘big if’…) and when (and that’s another ‘big when’) Ukraine gets F-16AMs, most of the times these are going to engage from ranges less than 50km.
Think, this can be concluded with: ‘case closed’.
3.) Next point: F-16 will be able of (reliably and/or regularly) targeting VKS fighter-bombers…
It’s not like the PSU isn’t already trying to do so, or hasn’t got the means. But - and just a typical example that would be valid for what was going on over eastern and southern Ukraine of the last few days, and as explained already in…..think it was back in June, in one of the ‘Assault Mode’ series of features – the Russian Su-34s are releasing the mass of their MPK and UMPK glide bombs (calibres 250- and 500kg, respectively) from altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 metres, and 50-60km away from their targets.
Now, in combat, this range ‘actually’ means that the Russian fighter-bombers are regularly approaching much closer of the frontline. Say: 30-40km. Why? Because they’re foremost deploying MPK/UMPK glide bombs to hit targets 10-20km behind the frontline. Example:
- Target is 15km behind the frontline;
- Su-34 is releasing its MPK/UMPK from around 45km short of the frontline;
- the MPK/UMPK is gliding over its total range of 60km (15+45=60).
And still, in most of cases, the PSU can’t shoot back with its surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) – not even with those that have an effective range of about 40km?
Yes, and the reason is exactly the same. In most of cases it can’t, because it’s not deploying its SAMs directly on the frontline. They’re too precious and too vulnerable, and would be quickly destroyed by the Russian UAVs and artillery. Therefore, most often Ukrainian SAMs are (at least) somewhere 15-20km behind the frontline.
This with the ‘factor range’ is the principal reason why the PSU’s ground-based air defences can’t counter such attacks: the Russians are remaining outside the range of its surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Now, because
the PSU lost many of its S-300s, early during the war,
because S-300 is so well-known to the Russians that they have effective countermeasures to it, and
because the West hasn’t taken care to deliver enough of MIM-104 Patriot SAMs to Ukraine,
the PSU hasn’t got enough long-range SAMs to (regularly) deploy them close to the frontline. With 2-3 exceptions this year, the two available MIM-104 Patriot SAM-systems are principally used for protection of major cities (Kyiv and Odesa).
Considering the effective maximum range of the F-16AM’s radar (55-60km) and the maximum effective range of its longest-ranged air-to-air missile (55-60km for AIM-120) conclusion is on hand that the delivery of F-16AMs to the PSU is not going to change anything at all in this regards.
….except Ukrainian F-16AM-pilots might desire to get shot down by the Russian interceptors or SAMs while trying to ‘cut the range’ to one of incoming Su-34s through venturing into the Russian-controlled airspace, of course.
(….to be continued…)