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.


It’s important to understand that there are several iterations of the HARM missile, each with a few unique capabilities and limitations, so for the most part, we’ll have to speak in generalities about how the new modes available with the F-16 could affect the SEAD mission.

Ukraine’s Soviet-era fighters are only able to leverage the HARM missile in what many call the “pre-briefed” mode. In effect, the missile is pre-programmed with a target area and then launched by an aircraft, often at a fairly long distance. The missile flies toward its intended target area, using its seeker to look for any air defense systems powering up and broadcasting radar waves for it to then close with and destroy. 


This method can be very effective, especially when launching these missiles in volume, as even if they don’t ultimately destroy enemy radar sites, their presence alone will often prompt air defense crews to power down their arrays. This effectively amounts to suppression of air defenses, as those powered-down arrays allow aircraft to operate inside the contested area for a short time. However, once the HARM threat has passed, these arrays can power back up and begin hunting for Ukrainian jets all over again. 

However, if operated by an aircraft carrying NATO-standard busses that allow pilots to leverage their full capability set, HARMs have two more operational modes that can be very handy in a fight, “self-protect” mode and “target of opportunity” mode. In self-protect mode, the aircraft’s onboard radar warning receiver identifies an enemy radar array that’s broadcasting. It then passes that target data over to the HARM, which can hone in on either the broadcasting radar or the specific location that waves were coming from in the event the enemy powers the system down. The target of opportunity mode is similar but allows the AGM-88’s onboard seeker to spot enemy radar arrays powering up, which then alerts the pilot to launch the weapon. 

These additional modes will provide Ukrainian F-16 pilots with more options for the suppression or destruction of enemy air defense operations, effectively allowing for a larger emphasis on the destruction of these assets than their suppression

And because these MLU F-16s are equipped with AN/ALR-69A(V) Radar Warning Receivers, they will be much better suited to avoid incoming missiles than Ukraine’s current jets. This brings us to another important value these aircraft can offer Ukraine. 


Thanks to the Mid-Life Update Denmark and the Netherlands’ F-16s received in the early 2000s, the jets being provided to Ukraine are likely equipped with the AN/ALR-69A Radar Warning Receiver – though it’s important to note that it’s hard to assess exactly how many systems have been installed or upgraded over the years. Regardless of the iteration of the ALR-69A, however, it will offer a significant increase to Ukraine’s ability to dodge incoming Russian surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Also, many of these systems received Reliability and Maintainability (R&M) modifications in the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s difficult to say how many. 

These RWR systems provide continuous monitoring of the combat environment, rapidly identifying inbound threats, alerting the pilot, and even taking both offensive and defensive action to mitigate threats via electronic warfare capabilities. 

The ALR-69A not only detects inbound threats, it provides the pilot with increased situational awareness by showing a graphic representation of the type of threat radar that’s “painting” (detecting) their aircraft in the heads-up display. By using an onboard database of radar frequencies, it recognizes and discerns between not only friendly and enemy radar arrays, but even between the types of arrays leveraged by different weapon systems – providing the pilot with an audible warning immediately upon being targeted, as well as an indicator of the type of weapon they’ve been targeted by. 

This would be a boon for Ukraine when leveraging the F-16 for air-to-ground attack missions, currently conducted by Su-25s that often don’t have a radar warning receiver onboard at all

“Our jets don’t have a system to warn about [Russian rocket] launches,” said a Ukranian Su-25 pilot with the call sign Pumba. “It’s all visual-based. If you see them, then you just try to escape by firing off heat traps and maneuvering.”

This system can obviously also further bolster the Ukrainian F-16’s performance in SEAD missions, but it will also be extremely valuable when flying air support operations near the front lines.

Last December, a Ukrainian fighter pilot identified only by his callsign “Juice” was interviewed by Lithuanian news agency Delfi and broke down the way Russian fighters have been attempting to engage Ukrainian jets using long-range air-to-air missiles like the R-37M. 

He described Russian Mikoyan MiG-31BMs flying high-altitude defensive patrols with a single long-range R-37M radar-guided missile onboard, launching as many as six R-37s into Ukrainian airspace per day at some points. These weapons measure nearly 14 feet in length, weigh 1,320 pounds, can achieve hypersonic speeds, and offer a claimed range of nearly 400 kilometers (about 250 miles). That significantly exceeds the range offered by America’s go-to beyond-visual range missile of choice, the AIM-120 AMRAAM which has a publicly disclosed range of somewhere north of just 100 miles. 

However, the R-37M is not actually very effective at these extreme ranges: It potentially poses a threat to larger, more sluggish aircraft like AWACS and tankers, but not fighters. When engaging fighters, the R-37M is only really viable inside of around 80 miles, and even at that point, Ukrainian pilots have proven relatively capable of dodging the missiles as they close in (though there are certainly reports of Ukrainian jets being downed by them). 

“We created different tactics for how to avoid this missile – and that’s why it’s not so successful against our jets,” Juice explained. 

Ukrainian pilots use a method commonly called “notching” or sometimes “beaming,” in which they rapidly change heading to become perpendicular to the inbound weapon’s course, reducing the fighter’s relative velocity to the weapon so drastically in its line of sight that it loses lock. Pilots often pull this off by going inverted, deploying chaff, and entering into a dive – but because many Ukrainian fighters fly at low altitudes, a tight perpendicular turn is also a feasible solution. 

However, this approach is only really effective once the R-37M’s onboard seeker spots a target and starts closing with it which alerts the pilot, via radar warning receiver, to take evasive action. This usually happens at just about 20 miles out.

The F-16AMs being transferred from Denmark are equipped with a Pylon Integrated Dispenser Station to deploy chaff to disorient inbound radar-guided missiles. They’re also equipped with Denmark’s Advanced Miniature Jamming System (AN/ALQ-10), which broadcasts radar signals back at weapons to confuse them during their approach. These systems, combined with the ALR-69A RWR will almost certainly further improve Ukrainian fighter’s survivability against these kinds of attacks. 

Most Ukrainian fighters also lack the ability to spot and target airborne cruise missiles, which is something else the F-16 will bring to the table. 

“Our aircraft have old radars that don’t see [Russian] cruise missiles. We are like blind cats when we try to shoot them down,” Ukrainian Air Force Colonel Volodymyr Lohachov explained to the BBC.

Leveraging F-16s for this role will reduce the strain on Ukrainian air defenses, as well as the logistical strain of maintaining a steady supply of interceptors for both high-dollar systems like the MIM-104 Patriot in Kyiv and the increasingly rare interceptors leveraged by Ukraine’s Soviet-era systems. 


While there’s been a great deal of discussion about the challenges of training Ukrainian fighter pilots to fly the F-16, an arguably more important challenge comes in the form of logistics. Operating F-16s requires far more than a capable pilot. Instead, it requires ground crews who are trained and equipped to provide maintenance, weapons techs who are trained and equipped to re-arm the aircraft, and rock-solid logistics to keep a steady supply of parts and ordnance flowing in at all times. These are all massive challenges that the countries supporting Ukraine in its fight seem to believe they can manage.

If that is the case, then this significant obstacle will rapidly turn into an important new strength for Ukrainian forces. To this point, the United States and other nations have had to find parts, equipment, and even replacement aircraft out of other nation’s Soviet-era stocks in order to keep Ukraine supplied. It was a logical approach, as Ukrainian troops already had the training and equipment infrastructure in place to continue operating these aircraft and weapon systems. But this has also proven to be a challenge, as there aren’t many NATO nations with large stockpiles of Soviet gear in good working order to transfer. 

The F-16, on the other hand, is operated by more than two dozen different nations around the world and the United States Air Force alone maintains a fleet of more than 950 of these jets. That means nations like the United States, with large Defense coffers to pull from and stockpiles of spare parts and equipment on hand, can more readily provide Ukraine with the supplies they need to keep these fighters in the air. Rather than scraping the bottom of the post-Soviet-parts barrel, Ukraine can receive parts and munitions from standing stockpiles that are actively being replenished by still-existing production lines.