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F-16s are heading to Ukraine – but will they pose a credible threat to Russia?

F-16s on their way to Ukraine

The approval by US President Joe Biden of this move at the G7 Conference will provide Ukraine some much needed aerial firepower. However, combat air power heavily depends on modern technology and many F-16s are old jets.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon was the most popular fighter jet around the world when it first flew, in the late 70s. It was light, agile, and very capable.

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The technology of the avionics of modern fighters, despite the physical agility and impressive thrust-to weight ratio of F-16 aircrafts, is a major factor in the combat capabilities of these aircraft.

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Radar is an important component of fighters’ capabilities. As technology has improved, deception techniques have also evolved.

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The common mantra for fighters is “He Who Sees Wins” – the sooner you spot the enemy, the faster you can launch a missile.

In the Second World War fine strips of aluminum were used to confuse enemy radars. Today, stealth technology, as well as a number of innovative electronic measures, are being used to increase survivability.

Out-of-date F-16s may not help

Ukraine will not receive any brand new F-16s. They are expensive and the West is unlikely to take a risk with high-end capabilities in this conflict.

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Sean Bell: F-16 jets are a major concern for Putin

Older fighters are less stealthy and have avionics that are older. They also have radars which have a lower capability.

Volkswagen Golf MK1 was produced when the first F-16s arrived. The latest version (MK8) still calls itself a Golf but is packed with modern technology. It is also a more capable vehicle.

Many nations now look to upgrade their F-16 fleets with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This could make several “high mileage F-16s” potentially available.

Jets, like cars, become less reliable as they age and are more dependent on spares.

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Why does Ukraine want the F16 fighter plane?

Image: Ukraine will not receive any brand new F-16s

Modern fighters need more than just radar. They also require electronic warfare, defensive tools, infrared sensor, link-16 datalinks and a computer to program and deliver the latest high-tech air to air and air to ground weapons.

Aside from trained pilots and crew, weapons, spares and ground planning facilities are required. Intelligence, as well as a range of supporting infrastructure, is also needed.

Will Ukraine receive the technology upgrades it needs?

A modern F-16 radar and modern air-to-air weapons would be a credible threat for modern Russian fighters. Anything less could embolden the Russian Air Force. Ukraine could be disappointed if it “gets” what it requested – an F-16 capability, only to discover that the reality is far from expectations.

The G7 announcement, despite the tactical challenges it presented, was extremely important to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Vladimir Putin, Russian president, had probably judged that Western support for the war would wane by the end of the year. So, despite his dismissive rhetoric, Mr Putin will find the decision to assist Ukraine in developing its own long-term air combat capability a grave setback.


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