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capability for the Ukrainian Air Force if allowed the opportunity to procure the F-16 system to replace its outdated ex Soviet aircraft.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 (whereas opposing forces are subjected to Aerial Incapability)

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

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

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

Level 1: Aerial Incapability (whereas 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).

Based on these requirements, the most critical requirement is SEAD (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 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. 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 effective countering of enemy UAV’s and loitering munitions as well. 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 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 Mission Profile:

The F-16 system is a highly complex combination of dozens of weapons systems 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 planes from surface-to-air missiles the enemy air-defense site might fire at them. If enemy fighters approach, the F-16’s use its 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 if the AGM-88E AARGM strike was successful. If the F-16 is equipped with GBU-39B/B bombs, it can be uses 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.

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 missions, and for that to happen, air bases require sufficient ground-based air defenses. 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 also require access to aerial tankers, as well as 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 added systems and capabilities require additional training which adds to the already long period required to train qualified crews.

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.

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. 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 one of its capabilities include ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) as an optional mode for SEAD missions when set to 'sensor mode', allowing the Ukrainian Air Force a means to map out the precise radiation emittance signatures of enemy ground deployments which include radar modules, radar jammers, satellite communications nodes, anti-aircraft batteries, or any hardware that emits some form of radiation during its use, including certain communications equipment. The impact of this capability is that the moment any of these equipment are in operation, Ukrainian Air Force aircraft equipped with the AGM-88 HARM will immediately locate the positions of such equipment on the ground, leaving them with the options to engage with the AGM-88 HARM, or to pass the target data onwards for engagement by other means. The AGM-88 HARM is designed as an anti-radiation missile (as opposed to thermal or IR signature tracking), and therefore no means of existing thermal or IR camouflage can hide a target. The Russians are very much aware of this capability, which has forced them to drastically reduce operation of any radiation emitting hardware to the absolute minimum (only when target sighting is confirmed allowing rapid engagement), and when such equipment is operated it needs to be redeployed as soon as possible away from the transmitting position to an alternative fighting position (which takes time), to avoid destruction by Ukrainian forces. This alone has drastically reduced Russian capabilities in its respective AO's to the benefit of the Ukrainian Air Force. This added capability, along with the coordinated use of the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) / GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System), has pushed Russian air defenses (BUK/S-300/S-400) back at least 100 km from the frontlines (outside GMLRS range), which effectively increases the radar horizon over the frontline by an additional 1200 ft, allowing the Ukrainian forces additional sanctuary for the use of its armed Bayraktar TB2 UAV sensors suite to target Russian tube and rocket artillery from a safe 100 km range, targets which cannot be identified using the AGM-88 HARM. These capabilities combined restricts Russian radio and digital communications between command nodes within occupied Ukrainian territories, further reducing the effectiveness of Russian C4IR capabilities during critical windows. This is but only a small part of setting the conditions for victory prior to any major counter offensive to force Russian forces out of occupied Ukrainian territory.

What about Russian SEAD capabilities?

The simple answer to this question is that Russia does not have suitable SEAD capabilities. To be capable of SEAD, an air force requires survivable platforms with precision engagement and ISR capabilities (the most basic form resembling such capabilities being the USAF F-16 Block 52 SEAD). In addition to these basic requirements, pilots require expensive realistic training based on a relevant doctrine and TTP's, something the Russian Air Force fails to do to save costs, along with the fact that the VKS fighting doctrine is outdated due to little institutional evolution since the 1980's style of Soviet warfare. In fact, it is Russia's inability to conduct SEAD missions why the VKS has ceased supporting Russian ground forces effectively from August 2022. Russian military carelessness (probably as an indicator of incompetence), is also not helping their ambitions to eventually develop SEAD capabilities. An example of such carelessness is the failure by Russian forces to recover the wreckage of a Su-30SM (RF-81773) which was shot down by Ukrainian forces, but came down in Russian controlled territory. This specific Sukhoi-30 was equipped with a nearly undamaged SAP-518SM 'Regata' jamming pod, which was then recovered and provided to US military intelligence for evaluation when the territory was recaptured by Ukrainian forces during its counter-offensive against Russian occupation.

However, the same capability challenges apply to basically all air forces, including the PLAAF, who established their core air force doctrines based on old Soviet air doctrine and TTP's, and primarily equipped with Russian hardware. The reality facing Russia is that recently decommissioned US hardware (considered obsolete by US military standards) being kept in reserve storage and provided to NATO partner nations via FMA/FMS (also applying to Ukraine), currently outperforms all so-called 'modern' equipment available in current Russian inventory, and the Russians have no means of effectively countering these capabilities. It has attempted procuring 'advanced' systems from both Iran and North Korea to replace battlefield losses, but none of that equipment has proven to be of any value to improving the current rapidly deteriorating Russian situation.

Looking at Africa, we find a whole continent with nations operating obsolete fighting doctrines, and equipped with unsuitable equipment to maintain any form of combat readiness for what is already the current means of warfare.


Based on the abundance of lessons learnt from the current Russo-Ukraine War, one of the major highlights of this ongoing conflict is the importance of Air Force design, and how complex a matter it is to maintain an Air Force to remain relevant into the future. The one major factor we need to understand is that no ‘one solution for all’ exists in terms of acquiring relevant air domination capabilities, but looking at current availability of solutions, the F-16 family is by far the most suitable system compared to anything else in its class. Yes, the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen does compare on par with much of the more modern F-16 variants, but the main deciding factors that count against the very capable JAS-39 Gripen systems are:

1. An ideal air domination force design would include the ‘high-low’ concept which simply implies that (especially relevant to large land mass territories), a combination of larger long-range fighter systems supported by smaller short-range fighters to enable greater mission effectiveness, flexibility, and efficiencies. To enable effective high-low capabilities integration, much of the systems should have commonality in terms of logistics, armaments, training, ground support procedures and capabilities. In terms of the high-low concept, the F-16 system (low) would be complimented by the much more capable F-15 system (high) and vice versa, and pilot progression from the F-16 to F-15 would require minimal conversion effort. The SAAB JAS-39 Gripen as a ‘low’ end system (light weight, short range, single-engine), offers no integration with any other ‘high’ end systems which would necessitate the integration of systems from a third-party nation (such as the Dassault Rafale or Eurofighter), requiring higher capitalization for the development of incompatible parallel support infrastructure to maintain a totally different platform system and associated unique design requirements, further complicating already complex ground support requirements, technical support and maintenance, systems integration and commonality, armaments compatibility, logistics, and periodic upgrades in terms of systems integration. Looking at the current Ukrainian Air Force design, it already has a 'high-low' capability in the form of the Mig-29 and Su-27, but it lacks the technological advantage over more modern Russian platforms which has greatly improved since the US authorized the [improvised] integration of the AGM-88 HARM system (one of the primary combat systems of the F-16), to establish a basic SEAD capability. Taking this into consideration, along with the fact that the Ukrainians have adopted much of the USAF fighting TTP's where possible, the air domination campaign is slowly starting to work in Ukraine's favor, and therefore an expedited F-16 system induction is more realistic compared to any other non-US system in its class. For smaller air forces in Africa, an alternative option to acquiring a suitable 'high-low' capability would be to adopt the F-16 as the 'high' capability in conjunction with the South-Korean KAI FA-50 which was designed with US combat systems commonality in mind (meaning: it can be equipped with the same armaments used on the F-16), why it is at present the most suitable foreign designed light fighter to compliment the F-16 as a primary multi-role fighter to enable the 'low' capability concept.

2. The F-16 system is superior to the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen in terms of availability of armaments and associated combat systems, especially in terms of guaranteed continuation of research and development of such armaments for improvement over lifetime due to the extent and scale of current customer distribution and associated multi-user R&D funding. There is no denying that the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen offers comparative systems to what is available (and operationally certified) for the F-16 variants, but looking at quantity and rapid availability of already manufactured stockpiles of armaments available at a few hours’ notice, nothing developed for the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen compares in numbers of availability as offered by the F-16 systems. The same applies to the platforms itself, since more than 10x as many F-16 platforms have been built compared to the JAS-39 Gripen. The F-16 has evolved into a platform that can be modernized to a basically new fighter system equipped with the most up-to-date hardware, whereas the JAS-39 Gripen still has too small a production run to equal such extension of service at the economies of scale offered by the F-16. This factor is further differentiated by the fact that the F-16 system is manufactured in various partner countries, and technical support over lifetime can originate from various sources, not just a single source as in the case of SAAB during times of need (such as the Russo-Ukraine war, referring to the current Ukrainian Air Force challenges in acquiring suitable armaments and technical support for obsolete equipment also in service with its opposing forces Russia).

Lockheed Martin F-16V Block 70/72 Viper. The newest variant available in the extensive range F-16 range of multi-role 4th Generation Plus fighters.

Now, we do understand that the majority low-end users (such as African air forces), do not have the resources to develop a high-low fighter capability due to cost implications, why the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen is considered an alternative solution to the F-16. However, looking at the lessons learnt from the Russo-Ukraine war, the major advantage of choosing the F-16 system as a primary multi-role fighter capability allows its users access to vastly superior resources offered by its manufacturer(s), as well as the technical- and operational knowledge base offered by its current [credible and competent] users. Furthermore, a major contributing factor in favor of the F-16 compared to the JAS-39 Gripen is that with major US defense purchases a beneficiary country also gains much political protection from the US government, especially during times of distress (terms and conditions apply), something that is not available from the Swedish government who claims to promote pacifist foreign policies. Also, another factor we need to understand about the arms industry is that defense products are perceived only as good as the level of competency of its existing users. What this means is that a system can be developed with advanced specifications on paper, but if the end-users of such systems do not know how to use such systems properly, and how to extract maximum value from its achievable potential, the system will be perceived by other prospective customers based on its existing performance with lesser capable end-users without taking end-user competence into consideration. However, the most important advantage offered by the F-16 is its integration with allied air forces (such as the USAF and other NATO users), to enable a joint high-low capability when required. This can only be achieved when there is commonality in training, armaments, and relevant support systems. South Africa is currently an example of a nation who initially planned on developing a high-low fighter capability during the 1990's, but then decided to procure the SAAB JAS-39 C/D system instead to ‘enable cost savings’ (although government political agenda was focussed on reducing its military capability for various reasons not disclosed to the military planners at the time). Unfortunately, the current SAAF fleet of JAS-39 C/D Gripen aircraft have been grounded for more than a year (since August 2021), and all platforms are already outdated due to the lack of system upgrades in line with the current OEM baseline version, along with SAAF unique design requirements to enable systems integration with other [now obsolete] non-SAAB systems also requiring mid-life upgrades by OEM's who have lost its capabilities to continue its ongoing support to the SAAF. What was initially sold as ‘a good idea’ two decades ago, has become a major serviceability obstacle, and the SAAF would have been in a much better situation if the South African political system enabled the procurement of the F-16 instead (which was offered to the SAAF during the initial procurement tender phase but declined). To complicate the SAAF situation even further, the Royal Air Force found a design fault on the Safran manufactured low pressure compression fan in the Rolls-Royce/Safran Adour 951 powerplant during mid-2022, causing for the immediate grounding of the majority BAE Systems Hawk T. Mk2 LIFTs which operate the same powerplants installed in the SAAF Hawk 120 LIFTs being used as stop-gap for combat air patrol while the SAAB JAS-39 C/D fleet is grounded. According to RAF estimates, Safran (OEM of the relevant component), cannot replace the defective engine components before 2025 due to global titanium shortages, and since this defect affects the whole global fleet of BAE Hawks based on the Hawk 100 platform, the SAAF will most probably be forced to ground its BAE Systems Hawk 120 LIFT fleet soon (subject to number of engine hours remaining within the OEM specified amended safe operating parameters) to benefit from eventual OEM warranty claims without being penalized. If the SAAF BAE Systems Hawk 120 LIFT's are grounded, the SAAF will have no serviceable fighter aircraft available. This scenario again highlights the importance of maintaining a balanced, multi-platforms solution to mitigate the risks of total capabilities lost (as in the case of the South African Air Force), especially in future with increased supply chain shortages and availability restrictions on critical materials and scarce resources as global relations deteriorate. Another major lesson to be learnt from this situation is the risks involved with procuring new, untested and unproven systems for primary hardware. The Rolls-Royce/Safran Adour 951 was designed for the newer generation BAE Hawk 100 variants, for which the SAAF was a launch customer with its Hawk 120 procurement.

Looking at the rest of Africa, a major stumbling block for procurement of the F-16 system is the common misconception amongst smaller air forces that the F-16 has an exceptionally high procurement cost compared to similar systems. However, cost inflation during initial procurement usually relates to the procurement of the support systems required to maintain the aircraft systems, training of air crews and ground crews, as well as weapons systems in sufficient quantities to conform with national defense strategy requirements over an end-user determined period of time. As applicable to any new systems, any procurement of systems less than 50 units would be considered costly compared to bulk purchases of a fleet exceeding 50 units since most of the required support equipment are already accounted for. It is for this reason why per unit cost calculations usually come to around US$ 146 million per unit for the F-16V Block 70/72 (19 units batch order: Bahrain) with small batch initial procurements, compared to large batch initial procurements of around US$ 65 million per unit (90 units batch order: Taiwan). However, what makes the F-16V Block 70/72 unique is that it has become beneficiary of considerable technology transfer derived from the F-35 Lightning II to extend its service relevance well into the future to eventually be replaced by the F-35 with simpler transitioning onto type.

And finally, how does the 50 year old design F-16 compare to the JF-17 Thunder (Read: JF-17 Thunder: Is it good enough for Africa)? In our opinion, the most recent variant of the F-16 outperforms the JF-17 Thunder Block III in terms of capabilities, reliability, and overall missions flexibility by far. To support this point from a PAF perspective, the only reason why the PAF adopted the JF-17 Thunder is because it was restricted from acquiring more modern F-16 variants to compliment its existing F-16 fleet (the most modern variants being Block 52 Plus baseline). The value offered by the F-16 system is its mass scale of global adoption and resulting extent of industrialization and continued R&D, why it will still remain a capable 4th Generation Plus frontline fighter for a few decades to come, especially as a preferred system to transition pilots onto more advanced 5th Generation fighters such as the F-35 Lightning II. However, looking at the PAF experience, compared to the poor state of serviceability situation in the SAAF (and various other comparable air forces), having a domestic fighter aircraft capability in the form of the JF-17 alongside the more superior F-16 has its advantages if one system is grounded for unforeseen reasons. In the end, a reduced capability fighter that flies is of much greater value than an advanced fighter that is grounded.


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