Will the F-16 Fighting Falcon Lead Ukraine to Victory Against Russia?

Will the F-16 Fighting Falcon Lead Ukraine to Victory Against Russia?

After more than a year of requests, Ukraine is finally about to start receiving General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons.


After more than a year of requests, Ukraine is finally about to start receiving General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons to aid in its efforts against the ongoing Russian invasion.

Months back, the Netherlands announced plans to transfer 42 F-16s to the embattled nation just as soon as Ukraine’s pilots have been trained to operate them, with Denmark following suit with a promise for 19 more, and Norway announcing that it will also give a handful.


But while this is certainly a victory for Ukraine, it’s important to understand not only what these highly capable jets can do, but also… what they won’t.

Ultimately, a fleet of F-16s will provide Ukrainian forces with a significant increase in both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, but the platform is 47 years old.

Further, no single platform or system – not even one as capable as the F-16 – can win the war for Ukraine. And what will ultimately matter most is how these aircraft are leveraged within a broader overarching combat strategy. 


Ukraine’s fighter fleets, composed of Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-27s, may look similar to those operated by Russia, but they carry even older avionics that further limit these dated fighters’ performance. 

“A Russian jet can see 2-3 times further with its radar than our fighter,” Yurii Inhat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s airforce command told the Wall Street Journal. “Our fighter is simply blind, it cannot see.”

As a result, the F-16s Ukraine will receive will offer a significant increase in capability, even if they are largely carrying systems that first emerged in the 1990s. However, it’s also important to remember that technology is only one piece of the combat puzzle, and the ways in which these platforms are leveraged in the fight will dictate a great deal of their value. 

“The integration of avionics, weapons systems, and weapons are decades ahead of what [Ukraine is] flying now,” retired Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, a former F-16 pilot as well as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said. “There will be an increased capability, increased radar range, increased weapons range, etc. But this is not the be-all to end-all.”

As retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General John Teichert has explained, the United States’ approach to fielding new weapons comes with a great deal of education, training, and combat exercises intended to ensure their use comes as second nature to American aviators. While Ukrainian pilots are being trained to operate these fighters, it would be nearly impossible for them to demonstrate the same level of proficiency in the near term.

As General Breedlove explained, if Ukrainians aren’t well-versed in the proper tactics to leverage these more advanced fighters, “you’re not going to realize any of the benefits of having a real four-plus generation aircraft. If you take an F-16 and fly it and use it like a MiG-29, you’re just going have a hotrod MiG-29, and that’s it.”

It’s also important to understand that system updates, upgrades, and replacements happen over time, meaning two F-16s of the same designation and flying for the same country may offer different capabilities based on the systems they have onboard and the weapons they’re capable of carrying. The single-seat F-16AMs and two-seat F-16BMs being provided to Ukraine are indeed pretty dated – receiving Mid Life Updates in the early 2000s to bring them approximately on par with the Block 50/52 F-16s the United States operated during Desert Storm.

There are a veritable ton of variables that could affect the F-16’s performance in Ukraine, and while it’s all but certain that they will offer a big boost in combat capability and capacity, anyone who purports to know exactly how these new fighters will change the dynamics of this conflict is either ignoring the complexities of the situation or being downright dishonest


A common Western error is to assume that Russia has failed to secure air dominance over Ukraine because it lacks the fighter capacity to do so. As Sandboxx News has covered at length previously, Russia’s warfare doctrine is very different from the Western or American way of war that we’ve come to recognize as effective in recent decades.

The United States prizes air superiority as the means to improve the circumstances of all subsequent combat operations. Russia, on the other hand, has established a warfare doctrine with NATO in mind, and as such, Russian planners made the fairly astute assumption that they would not be able to secure air superiority in a potential conflict with NATO. As such, airpower is not seen as a power unto itself in Russia, but rather, as a sort of long-range extension of Russia’s focus on securing fire superiority

“Russian air doctrine is very different than Western air doctrine. They don’t use airpower other than as a means of an extension of ground forces,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, explained

Now, this should not be seen as a defense of Russia’s inability to control Ukraine’s airspace, as the way this conflict has unfolded over the past 18 months clearly demonstrates the failings of this doctrine.

In other words, if Russia believed it could dominate airspace in large-scale conflicts, its doctrine would reflect that. But because Russian planners know they likely can’t, they’ve adjusted their planning to suit. This isn’t an example of Russia simply choosing a different approach to warfare so much as an example of mitigating its own strategic and tactical shortcomings. Russia’s defense apparatus gave its planners lemons, and this approach to warfare is their best attempt at making lemonade.

The Russian Air Force was believed to have more than 900 fighters in its inventory at the start of this conflict, with nearly half dedicated to attack operations and the remaining considered either multi-role or air intercept platforms. Assuming a below-average but believable readiness rate of 50%, that leaves a total of fewer than 450 fighters available for the breadth of Russia’s operations, which include territorial defense, operations in Syria and elsewhere, and the war over Ukraine. Russia has also struggled with pilot shortages, forcing it to take instructors out of their training environments and thrust them into front-line combat, which further limits both the volume and efficacy of their fighter sorties. 

Concerns about these pilot shortages and sanctions stifling aircraft production have left Russia somewhat conservative in its use of airpower. This means that it’s often keeping aircraft inside Russian airspace while launching longer-range weapons into Ukraine. F-16s carrying AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missiles will make that a far more difficult proposition. Ukrainian pilots currently rely on Soviet-era R-73 radar-guided missiles and both radar or infrared-guided iterations of the R-27, all of which fall 30 or more miles short of the AMRAAM’s publicly disclosed range.

But even with all of that in mind, Ukrainian F-16 pilots will almost certainly still be fighting an uphill battle against superior numbers, making it not necessarily a question of “who would win between an F-16 and a Su-27?” but rather, it may often be, “who would win between an F-16 and two Su-27s?”

Ukrainian pilots have proven to be incredibly resourceful thus far in the conflict, however, managing to keep the airspace over their nation contested while supporting ground troops and engaging Russian air defense systems – and there can be no doubt that their ability to do all of these things and more will my significantly improved by the addition of F-16s into the equation. 

Related: Ukrainian company offers $1 million to Russian pilots who defect


Perhaps the most potent improvement the F-16 can offer Ukraine (beyond bolstering airframe numbers) is in the suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD). The nimble F-16 has proven extremely effective in this role for the United States since absorbing it from the F-4G Wild Weasel. American F-16s tasked with the job often receive specialized equipment to coincide with Wild Weasel pilots’ specialized training, even the somewhat dated F-16s heading for Ukraine will immediately offer a significant boost in SEAD capability. (Wild Weasel can refer to any type of aircraft that is equipped to conduct SEAD missions.)

Ukrainian forces have been leveraging America’s AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) since August of 2022 or earlier, but because these weapons are being deployed by dated Soviet jets that were never intended to use them, their utility has been dramatically limited. 

Anti-radiation missiles like the HARM work by honing on the electromagnetic radiation broadcast by radar arrays – in other words, radar waves – making them uniquely suited for the SEAD role. American Wild Weasel pilots often fly their aircraft into contested airspace, waiting for enemy air defense systems to power up in an attempt to target them or their wingmen. Once the air defense systems are broadcasting radar waves, Wild Weasel pilots launch their HARM missiles to hone in on those radar waves and destroy the air defense equipment.