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Lessons from Ukraine: How Air Domination requirements influence Air Force design


Polish Air Force F-16C Block 52 Plus. The Block 52 variant was originally developed for USAF SEAD missions, and this variant in service with the Polish Air Force would be an ideal minimum baseline specifications capability for the Ukrainian Air Force if allowed the opportunity to procure the F-16 system to replace its outdated ex Soviet aircraft.



The Russo-Ukraine War has presented many lessons in terms of future force design requirements to achieve sustainable air domination capabilities, especially to Africa which is further declining along the capabilities curve. Since the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we have witnessed both Ukraine and the more ‘superior’ Russia failing to achieve total aerial supremacy five months into the conflict. The highest level of air dominance that Russia could achieve during the conflict is Aerial Superiority over the territories its ground forces control in the East and South-East of Ukraine.


The Battle for Air Domination:


In simple terms, air domination is the degree to which a side in conflict holds control of air power over opposing forces. To understand what this means, the most relevant levels of air domination are defined as:


Aerial Superiority: The ability to conduct air operations without prohibitive interference by the opposing force(s); or

Aerial Supremacy: The opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.


The Aerial Supremacy condition is only achieved when friendly operations are able to proceed without interference from opposing forces. To know the reasons why these conditions were not achieved in the Ukraine conflict by either side, we need to understand the theories on aerial warfare which details five levels to which air power exercises control of the air domain, namely:


Level 5: Aerial Supremacy (opposing forces subjected to Aerial Incapability)

Level 4: Aerial Superiority (opposing forces subjected to Aerial Denial)

Level 3: Aerial Parity (opposing forces also maintain Aerial Parity)

Level 2: Aerial Denial (opposing forces maintain Aerial Superiority)

Level 1: Aerial Incapability (opposing forces maintain Aerial Supremacy)


Each of these five grades have a counter-grade which is diametrically opposite. In other words, Aerial Supremacy for one side means Aerial Incapability for the other side, just as Aerial Superiority means Aerial Denial for the other, etc. So, looking at the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) maintaining Air Superiority over occupied Ukrainian territories means that the VKS is most of the time, though not yet totally free, to run combat operations inside the Ukrainian airspace without disruptions from the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU). Within its present state it also means that the PSU has extremely limited capability to disrupt VKS operations, or causing major losses. However, it does not mean that Ukrainian air defense capability is totally ineffective, for on the contrary, it is the current limited availability of air defense options that still exists in the Ukrainian forces which prohibits Russia from declaring a state of Aerial Supremacy in its area of operations. Basically, the state of air domination five months after the Russian invasion implies that the PSU and air defenses are suppressed to the level where the VKS can still enjoy freedom of operations within [limited] Ukrainian airspace until such time when the situation changes into Ukraine’s favor. The main limitation for Russian forces is that they need to destroy all Ukrainian light SAM’s, MANPADs, air defense artillery systems, and the last remaining remnants of the PSU before they can achieve Air Supremacy.


So, what is the major problem in terms of current VKS capabilities assessments? The main issue, as with so many other ‘modern’ Russian arms developments during the past 20 years, is the overestimation of systems capabilities based on incorrect information derived from mainly Russian (dis)information operations which in general overestimates combat system capabilities to the level where Russian government officials and military planners also believe it (a product of Russian arms development corruption to enable increased defense spending since no-one actually anticipated a major conflict of the current scale which would have exposed these inaccuracies as observed in the present). An example of this in relation to air dominance, is looking at the NATO assessed capabilities of the more modern Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35 systems. In the West these systems were praised as ‘multi-role’ aircraft, whereas in reality the VKS still have not proven these ‘multi-role’ (multi-mission) capabilities in any of the conflicts it has supported during the past decade from either a doctrine or capabilities perspective. Now, to understand the reasons for this over-estimation of capabilities, we need to understand why the West often does that intentionally (same doctrine applying to the current over-estimation of PRC combat capabilities), as a means of securing government funding to stay ahead of the curve in terms of research and development of combat capabilities improvements. This is understandable (as a means of curtailing political bureaucracy), and it also reflects in the superior quality of ‘obsolete’ Western combat systems compared to ‘modern’ Russian systems. The effects this had on the Russians is that they also accepted the overestimated Western assessments of its capabilities for it indirectly enhanced its national image, basically providing free marketing for foreign sales to Russian friendly states not being in favor of purchasing Western combat systems for whatever [mostly unjustifiable] reasons. Also, by no means would any of the Russian arms developers publicly admit to their systems being lesser capable than what the West claims it to be, why Russian planners also unquestionably believed their capabilities to be far greater than what it actually was (the ‘magical’ effects of effective information operations). Furthermore, with the West knowing the actual [deficient] capabilities in Russian systems being sold to its adversaries, the West always knew how to counter Russian systems effectively in the event of conflict (as proven in various locations where NATO forces intervened during the past two decades).


Now, looking at current VKS systems and why it is designed to be large platforms (especially the Sukhoi family of fighters), we need to go back to the 1970’s when they were initially designed to operate over anticipated West German battlefields from bases located in Poland and other Baltic states. At the time, East German (GDR) bases were already stocked to capacity with shorter range combat systems (predominantly Mikoyan MiG variants). Therefore, these larger aircraft had to carry more fuel over longer distances to reach the intended battlefields. Now, because the aircraft were large in design, it required more powerful propulsion which in turn improved dogfighting capability against an anticipated F-15/F-16 equipped NATO threat. In terms of research and development inputs dating back to the 1990’s, much of the current ‘modern’ Sukhoi fighters development resulted from Indian Air Force (IAF) requirements. The IAF requested Russia to develop a ‘multi-role’ variant equipped with Western avionics and combat systems in India. The result was the Sukhoi Su-30MKI which made all subsequent variants famous for being ‘multi-role’ fighter bombers, further leading to increased foreign sales. However, in terms of arms development for the VKS, the process of requirements research and development based on doctrine improvements works totally different compared to how it is done in the West, and based on the IAF program alone, none of the IAF design improvements actually fed into the enhancement of VKS combat capabilities. The VKS development philosophy considered extended range as the primary capability requirement at the cost of reduced combat capability as a multi-role fighter-bomber. The VKS considers the interception role as primary capability, why the bulk of the VKS capability in the form of the Sukhoi Su-30SM is in fact an interceptor, further justifying why VKS crews are exclusively trained for that role. The Sukhoi Su-35 was later developed as a cheaper, simpler, and ‘improved’ sub-variant of the Su-30 which in turn was based on the single-seat Su-27, with a primary role as an ‘interceptor’ with no multi-role capabilities. In fact, looking at the current VKS fleet, there are no ‘multi-role’ aircraft systems in service with the VKS comparable to what NATO defines as ‘multi-role’ capabilities. The bomber/strike roles in the VKS are performed by dedicated platforms such as the Sukhoi Su-24 and the more modern Sukhoi Su-34. In fact, the VKS intended to replace all older Su-24 systems with newer Su-34 systems. The Su-34 crews are also trained exclusively for the ‘front bomber’ role. It was only after various complaints in Syria that Su-34 crews were also trained to use R-27 and R-77 for self-defense purposes only. However, due to budget constraints, training of Su-34 crews on the use of R-27 and R-77 were halted and deemed unnecessary to save on limited supply AAM’s. Based on the current operation of VKS Su-34 systems during the first 100 days of operation in Ukraine, the VKS only uses FAB-500M-62 ‘dumb’ bombs due to the depletion of more advanced munitions.


The main lesson to be learnt from the Russian VKS in Ukraine is that it has proved itself lacking in any modern multi-role aerial combat capability, especially in terms of availability of modern munitions and appropriate training of air crews. In fact, the Russians clearly proved their inability to effectively launch and maintain a multi-functional strategic air campaign for the simple reason that they have never done it before compared to the scale usually executed by NATO air forces. For this reason, the Russian VKS fails to operate as an integrated airborne system with mutually supporting capabilities which include:

  • Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C);

  • In-flight refueling (IFR);

  • Combat Air Patrol (CAP);

  • Close Air Support/SEAD;

  • Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR); and

  • Ground-based Air Defense Systems (GADS).

Looking at Russian air operations over Ukraine, missions are straightforward bombing runs with mainly unguided munitions based on specific mission criteria with the purpose of bombing poorly verified targets, and then returning back to base without being shot down. There are no form of flexibility or commander initiative, and TTP’s are rigid in accordance with the [outdated] air doctrine which does not allow for rapid review and adaptation. Furthermore, we also think that most Russian export customers already know the long list of limitations of their overestimated Russian systems, but nobody is willing to admit to it in fear of exposing its deficient capabilities to the public and its immediate adversaries, to include associated procurement fraud (at the political level) usually associated with Russian arms sales (which may indicate one of the unspoken reasons why the majority ex-Soviet Eastern European nations gladly donated outdated Russian hardware to Ukraine in exchange for more advanced NATO systems as an exit strategy while gaining favorable public support for such ‘kind’ actions towards Ukraine).


What the PSU has learnt from the current conflict with Russia is the importance of having a multi-layered modern air defense capability which it is still struggling to obtain from the West who fears providing the required modern systems to avoid any possibility of such technology (which includes older generation systems), falling into the hands of the Russians, Iran or the PRC. Six months into the war, and NATO support to Ukraine was still limited to mainly MANPADs, with the possibility of earlier generation MIM-104 Patriots to be provided by the US for the air defense role. However, the systems which contributed most to Ukraine not being subjected to Aerial Incapacity is its investment in various models of UAV’s, especially the Bayraktar TB-2 for effective ground-attack missions behind enemy frontlines. The addition of US loitering munitions also relieved much of the CAS deficiency by the PSU in support of ground forces, especially taking into consideration the contested airspace limiting the use of Sukhoi Su-25 CAS aircraft by both sides to support their respective ground forces effectively. Su-25 CAS operations are on the increase (along with increased losses), but current operations have proven little effectiveness in terms of accuracy and efficiency of operations. Both the PSU and VKS have illustrated lacking skills in effectively operating in contested airspace and ensuring that TTP’s are developed to improve combat effectiveness and efficiency. Both these air forces are not the first to operate under similar contested conditions, but none of them are applying any of the TTP’s that were developed and mastered by both the Israeli’s and South Africans under similar conditions in the past with great operational success. Finally, the most critical lesson to be learnt from the current Russo-Ukraine conflict in terms of aerial warfare is that an effective air defense capability should include the means of engaging low-radar cross-section MALE (medium-altitude, long endurance) UAV’s to achieve air supremacy as based on the proven effectiveness of the Bayraktar TB-2 system from the perspective of having to counter the use of such systems by opposing forces. Russian Forces have increased its UAV capabilities through large scale acquisitions from Iran, which further necessitates the importance of capable ground air defense systems such as the MIM-104 Patriot.


Solving the Air Dominance Stalemate in Ukraine:


The major obstacle limiting the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU) from achieving air dominance is exactly the same problem limiting the Russian Air Force (VKS) from achieving air dominance, namely, obsolete equipment designed to operate along obsolete combat doctrines. In other words, the VKS and PSU are both in a stalemate situation for the simple reason that both air forces are similar trained to operate similar equipment following similar [outdated Soviet] doctrines. The only option to break this stalemate is for Ukraine to benefit from Western equipment in the form of more advanced aircraft along with more capable ground based air defense systems. Initially, at the start of the 2022 Russian campaign in Ukraine, the US was hesitant to provide more advanced military systems such as F-16 multi-role fighter to the Ukraine Air Force in fear of losing such technology to the Russians and its allies (Iran, PRC). However, six months into the current campaign, Ukraine has proven itself reliable in taking care of Western hardware, and therefore they are considered more worthy to be provided with retired USAF F-16 multi-role fighters.

F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcon variant in service with the air force of the UAE.



Even though these systems are retired USAF, it is by no means obsolete in terms of capabilities which further proves the fact that older Western military hardware are still superior in capabilities compared to modern Russian systems. Looking at what Ukraine requires to achieve air dominance, the F-16 is a highly capable fighter in service with eleven NATO air forces. It is also the fighter system most suitable to meet immediate Ukraine Air Force requirements for around 80 to 100 units to replace its current ex-Soviet era aircraft fleet. That said, Ukraine critically requires fighter aircraft capable of the following missions to achieve a state of air dominance over Russian occupied territories:

  • Air-to-Air / Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM)

  • Close Air Support (CAS)

  • Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) / Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD).

Based on these requirements, the most critical requirement is SEAD/DEAD (although all the listed capabilities are interconnected) and specifically systems capable of operating the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) variants, the primary USAF multi-mode air-to-surface anti-radiation missile system specifically designed to neutralize ground-based air defense radar systems.

AGM-88 air-to-surface HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) mounted on a F-16. Since August 2022, the US has assisted Ukraine with the supply and integration of this system to be fired from Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29 aircraft. Precise technical details of how the system was integrated in such a short period of time is unknown, although this integration does not enable full missile capabilities as available when operated from the F-16.



However, Ukraine cannot afford to induct different aircraft systems to fulfill each capability requirement, and therefore the only current available system is the F-16 C/D Block 52 SEAD multi-role fighter variant (minimum baseline specifications) and above. The SAAB JAS-39 Gripen does offer suitably comparable capabilities, but not at the scale of already available and proven platforms and munitions as offered by the F-16. This is one of the most critical factors, also most commonly overlooked by military planners during arms procurements, namely, rapid fleet expansion and replacement of aircraft losses, and rapid resupply of spent munitions. The F-16 is presently the only modern aircraft system in the world offering rapid supply capability due to the large numbers produced during the system’s production lifetime numbering around 3,000 units to date in various block variants, with industrial capacity to manufacture even more if required. This is especially applicable in Africa where air forces are hesitant to purchase US systems subject to various US Government controls during its foreseen service lifetime, hence the reason why African nations foolishly choose to procure lesser capable systems from both Russia and the PRC which are perceived ‘less restrictive’ in terms of government controls, but in turn more vulnerable to quality issues, systems obsolescence, and guaranteed service life technical support. South Africa made this mistake during the acquisition of the SAAB JAS-39 C/D Gripen which compares in performance capability to the F-16, but at the cost of its total JAS-39 C/D Gripen fleet having been grounded for more than a year since August 2021.



Venn Diagram illustrating current in-service NATO fighters and how they compare in terms of multi-role missions (ACM, CAS, SEAD) capabilities based on immediate Ukrainian Air Force needs for sufficient availability of full mission ready (FMC) platforms and multi-mission specific munitions within a time constrained procurement period. The main deciding factor in determining the suitability of the F-16 system as the most versatile option to meet current Ukrainian Air Force requirements within the shortest period of time, is the proven maturity of the AGM-88 HARM multi-mode air-to-surface anti-radiation missile system as integrated onto the F-16. As European systems, the Eurofighter, Rafale, and JAS-39 Gripen offers alternative SEAD capabilities, but none of these systems offer feasible availability of required quantities comparable to what the USAF and NATO Europe (existing F-16 operators) already have available in stock to enable rapid supply and resupply without the need for additional production. Procurement process and costs are also the most simplified in terms of the US lend-lease system.



Looking at current Ukrainian Air Force requirements, if the US Congress approves the sale/lend-lease of ex-USAF F-16 systems to the Ukraine, the first major obstacle will be training of current Ukrainian Air Force pilots qualified on either the Sukhoi Su-27 or Mikoyan Mig-29 to convert onto the F-16 system. This, however, cannot be accomplished in only a matter of a few weeks. This has nothing to do with the skills level of Ukrainian Air Force pilots (who have proven themselves highly competent facing the better equipped Russian Air Force), but rather relates to the vast differences in complexity and advancement between the mission systems of NATO vs Russian platforms. However, to understand this in greater detail, we need to understand the NATO doctrine relevant to the sustainable operation of the F-16 system in terms of:


Base Infrastructure and Protection:


Before actual flight operations can commence using the F-16 system, suitable infrastructure at air bases need to be developed to support all components of the F-16 as a system. In general, the F-16 system consists of the following elements, namely:

  • Hardware and Munitions,

  • Support Equipment and Facilities,

  • Training and Training Equipment,

  • C4I, and

  • Tactical Application Doctrine.

One of the critical hardware requirements include suitable ground air defense systems such as the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, or at least the shorter range [US version] NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) which fires the AIM-120 AMRAAM, to counter Russian air attacks by whatever means. The current S-300 system in service with the Ukrainian armed forces does not compare in capabilities to what is offered by the Patriot system in terms of capabilities. As a minimum, each air base should be equipped with at least a full compliment Air Defense Battery, which includes PAC-2/GEM+ missiles to counter enemy aircraft threats, and PAC-3 and PAC-3 MSE missiles to counter both cruise- and ballistic missiles. Added capability should include efficient countering of enemy UAV’s and loitering munitions as well, why suitable short- to medium range ground-based air defense systems are required. Therefore, before the arrival of any F-16’s in Ukrainian service, Ukrainian forces need to be trained to operate the MIM-104 Patriot system effectively over a minimum period of 30 weeks.


Pilot Training:


To convert qualified and experienced Ukrainian Air Force pilots onto the F-16 system, the following basic training would have to be completed as a minimum qualification requirement before operational use in Ukraine against Russian forces, namely:


1. Initial Flight Training: The USAF initial flight training course spans over a period of 15 months, and although it would not be necessary for already qualified and experienced Ukrainian Air Force pilots to complete this whole program, they will require some form of bridging training conducted on both the T-6 and T-38 to become accustomed with the US avionics and associated systems/procedures. This would ensure a smoother transition to the next phase of training on the F-16 system.


2. Basic Course (F-16): This is the critical part of the training which spans over 9 months and includes a minimum of 62 flights. This training program cannot be reduced, irrespective of the level of experience the pilots have on other (especially non-NATO) systems. The F-16 is a multi-role fighter, and it is essential that all pilots understand all aspects relevant to the system, including basic air combat maneuvering (ACM) based on the unique flying characteristics of the aircraft before progressing to specialized training programs.


3. SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): This is a specialization course which must be completed by all pilots after qualifying on the basic course. The duration of the SEAD training is 1 month.


Ground Crew Training:


Based on current USAF operating procedures, each F-16 system requires 25 maintainers to provide around 16 hours of maintenance for every 1 hour flight time. This includes ground-crew conducting pre-flight, thru-flight (landing to re-arm and refuel before departing to continue a mission), and post-flight safety checks, as well as armorers. There are also ‘back shop’ maintainers specialized in more specific skill sets which include maintaining or repairing weapons-, guidance-, or propulsion systems. These jobs are essential for continuing air combat operations, and to reduce any damage or losses to equipment caused by avoidable ground operations negligence. The basic qualification period for F-16 technicians is 18 months. But why is ground crew training for the F-16 system longer in duration than the training period for pilots? The answer relates to the complexity of the F-16 as a multi-role fighter system which is designed to be converted in a few hours to meet specific mission profiles. In other words, you cannot just hang bombs and missiles as you like, and then take off without proper intelligence based planning. Munitions requirements are unique for each mission profile based on specific target characteristics, operational environment and threats. For example:


1. In the ground-attack role, if the mission specifies the use of GBU-39B bombs, then BRU-61A bomb racks need to be fitted to the platform.

BRU-61A bomb rack with GBU-39B bombs



To attach two JSOW or GBU-38 JDAM bombs to a pylon, a BRU-57A bomb rack needs to be fitted. The F-16 multi-mission computer communicates with the racks and rails, which in turn communicates with the weapon systems mounted.

BRU-57A bomb rack with GBU-38 500 lbs JDAM



2. In the Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) role (the modern term referring to air-to-air combat), the underwing LAU-129A missile rail launcher is mounted to fire the AIM-9X Sidewinder on all blocks F-16C/D variants. However, if the AIM-120D AMRAAM is specified for the mission, the LAU-129A rail launcher is mounted both underwing and on the wingtip.

LAU-129A missile rail launcher, the modernized replacement of the 16S210 rail launcher system, as mounted on the wingtip and underwing alongside an ALE-50 Towed Decoy System



Alternatively, the 16S210 rail launcher is fitted to allow older variant AIM-9 Sidewinder AAM's to be mounted on the wingtip or underwing.


Basic SEAD/DEAD Mission Profile:


The F-16 system is a highly complex combination of dozens of weapons systems and sensors which requires both the pilots and ground crew to be fully capable on the correct application and operation of all these systems to benefit from all the systems capabilities, as well as to avoid negligent damage to any systems as a result of improper use. The SEAD missions are testimony to the complexity of these systems, why it is a separate course from the basic F-16 course. For a SEAD mission, two F-16 aircraft will be loaded out with:

  • 2x AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles

  • 2x AIM-120D AMRAAM air-to-air missiles

  • 2x AGM-88E AARGM air-to-surface anti-radiation missiles

  • 1x AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod

  • 1x AN/ASQ-213 HTS to locate radar guided systems

  • 1x AN/ALQ-184(V)9, which combines an ALQ-184 ECM pod with an AN/ALE-50 towed decoy system

  • 2x External fuel tanks, or additional bombs or missiles.

AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod on a F-16



The two SEAD mission aircraft will then fly along an enemy's air defense zone and try to incite enemy air-defense sites to target them with its radars. Once the AN/ASQ-213 detects an active enemy radar, the pilots will fire an AGM-88E AARGM which will autonomously attack and destroy the enemy radar. The pilots will then use the AN/ALQ-184(V)9 to protect their aircraft from enemy surface-to-air missiles fired at them. If enemy fighters approach, the F-16’s are equipped with AIM-120D AMRAAM to attack the enemy aircraft. With their AN/AAQ-33 Sniper pods, the aircraft can also fly over the enemy air-defense site to confirm whether the AGM-88E AARGM strike was successful. If the F-16 is equipped with GBU-39B/B bombs, it can be used in combination with the Sniper pod's laser targeting system to strike the remaining neutralized, but not destroyed, missile launchers and command/support vehicles of the enemy air-defense battery. SEAD missions are usually performed with the assistance of AEW&C in the air to extend situational awareness.

USAF South Carolina ANG, 169th Fighter Wing, F-16C/D Block 52 SEAD



The SEAD mission is highly complex, and it is essential that the Ukrainian Air Force first conducts SEAD missions before commencing with ground-strike/CAS missions, and for that to happen, air bases require sufficient ground-based air defenses. There are various options to 'improvise' absent capabilities which would work as temporary measures during the short term, but not sustainable in the long-run. This is the only means of achieving gradual air dominance over the Russians, and the minimum training period would be 10 months to deploy a F-16 qualified first batch of Ukrainian Air Force pilots, whereafter the next training batch can commence their conversion training. In addition to these basic F-16 requirements, the Ukrainian Air Force will eventually require access to aerial tankers and AEW&C aircraft to extend the F-16 capabilities potential by extending the sensors range well within both Russia and Belarus. Ground based radar is vulnerable to enemy cruise missile strikes and the F-16C/D AN/APG-68(V)9 radar has a range of 300 km with an arc of 120°, while the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C radar has a range of 600 km and an arc of 360°. Four E-7A Wedgetail systems enable 24/7 airspace coverage. To interdict enemy fighters approaching Ukrainian territory and to protect the AEW&C systems, F-16’s need to be in the air 24/7 which requires external fuel tanks (which reduces speed and weapons load-out), or in-flight refueling by at least four KC-46 Pegasus tankers. All these additional systems and capabilities require training to qualify crews in its effective application.


However, the only solution to drastically reduce the initial training requirements obstacle and enable rapid delivery of the F-16 fighter systems is to recruit contractor pilots and ground crews already qualified and experienced on the relevant systems and procedures, after approval and vetting via the US Department of Defense. There are an abundance of both US and NATO Europe personnel sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause who are willing and available (at the right price), to fill the gap over a 5 years transition period to enable smooth induction of all systems, with gradual transitioning to Ukrainian crews as they become qualified on the more advanced US systems.


Bridging the SEAD Capability Gap:


Knowing the complexities involved with the overall induction of the anticipated F-16 system to achieve the Phase 3: Proven milestone (Read: Business Unusual: The Private Defense Industry) that enables operational deployment (as also applicable to any other comparative systems if not the F-16), the Ukrainian Air Force has taken the first step, with the technical assistance of the United States, to retrofit the AGM-88 HARM onto Ukrainian Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29, Sukhoi Su-25, and Sukhoi Su-27 aircraft by improvised means (the precise technical means not to be discussed). However, one of the major capabilities of this missile system in addition to its precise destructive capabilities, is it sensors. The AGM-88 HARM is a multi-mode system, and even the older generation AGM-88 B/C-1/D variants (to which Ukraine is beneficiary) operate three different modes, namely:


1. Self-Protect (SP)/Launch Off RWR (LOR): Short- to medium range mode of operation for USAF F-16 C/D SEAD equipped with the AN/ASQ-213 HTS R7 sensor system to detect, locate, analyze, and identify sources of radio frequency emission within 360 degrees. In this mode, the more powerful RWR sensors on the delivery platform collects the target data required for the missile's application. Once a target is confirmed, the pilot transmits the data to the LAU-118/A missile launcher as mechanical and electrical interface with the AGM-88 missile. This mode is only compatible with US sensors installed on the F-16 C/D SEAD, and US Navy EA-18G Growler, but can be integrated on other US common systems such as the F-15C, F-15E, and F/A-18C which do not have the powerful sensor systems found on the SEAD dedicated F-16 C/D and EA-18G, using less accurate target data from the less powerful radar warning receivers (RWR). In SP mode, the launch platform should be equipped with advanced ECM and self-protection measures, why the USAF and USN only uses the F-16 C/D SEAD (ALQ-184 ECM pod with an AN/ALE-50 towed decoy system) and EA-18G Growlers (3x AN/ALQ-99F/V jamming pods) as dedicated SEAD platforms due to their mission specific ECM and self-protection systems.


2. Target of Opportunity (TOO)/HARM as Sensor (HAS)/Direct Attack (DA): An alternative higher risk Lock-On-Before-Launch (LOBL) mode using the AGM-88 HARM's internal, but less powerful, passive radar homing seeker that scans for and detects radio frequency emissions at much shorter ranges compared to SP mode using more powerful aircraft sensors input. Once a missile detects a possible target, it transmits the data to the aircraft's launch interface computer, and the pilot then decides whether the target is a threat. If the pilot decides to engage the target, missile launch is activated, and the AGM-88 missile engages the target autonomously without further pilot input. In TOO mode, the launch aircraft should be equipped with advanced ECM (jamming) and self-protection systems as found on the F-16 C/D SEAD and EA-18G Growler for the reason that aircraft survivability will be at high risk flying high and deep into enemy air defense zones as required to effectively detect and engage suitable targets.


3. Pre-Briefed (PB)/Pre-Emptive (PE)/Position Known (POS): The lowest risk Lock-On-After-Launch (LOAL) mode used for stand-off maximum range attacks on emitters of a known type and location, within several degrees of the missile boresight. This is the most basic mode in which the AGM-88 HARM is pre-programmed on the ground with precise target data based on confirmed intelligence relayed from forward deployed observation elements (air or ground - UAV, FAC, Special Forces, etc). The delivery platform purpose is only to deliver the missile closer to the target within a range of around 150 km at maximum speed and highest [safe] altitude out of range of enemy air defenses. The AGM-88 will autonomously fly to the target coordinates once launched, and when within lock-on range, the missile will scan, detect, lock-on and engage the target without external control inputs. A sub-mode of PB/PE/POS is Equations-Of-Motion (EOM) mode which allows more precise selection of emitters at maximum range in a high density environment. The EOM mode is more precise than the PB mode in terms of target selection, and can engage off-axis, but requiring more precise target data.

This diagram illustrates that best stand-off range performance is achieved in EOM mode by means of a range-finding targeting receiver or Emitter Locating System (ELS). In this mode the HARM is typically 'tossed' by the launch aircraft and then flies on inertial guidance until the trip point where homing commences.