‘It’s fragile’: Experts doubt F-16 will take off from Ukraine

Increasingly, experts are agreeing with an analysis made by BulgarianMilitary.com earlier this year. The consensus is clear: Ukraine’s runways are not equipped for the landing and takeoff of “such delicate planes” like the F-16. 

US-made F-16 in the sky over the Black Sea: predator or prey?
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Kelly Grieco, a distinguished fellow at Washington’s Stimson Center, USA, reported this in a recent Reuters article. The American Viper, she explained, requires a well-prepared runway for successful takeoff. According to Grieco, the F-16’s large bottom air intake could potentially ingest debris from the ground on unkempt runways, like the ones often found in Ukraine. 

Contrastingly, Soviet models like the MiG-29 have ingeniously circumvented the “F-16 issue”. With the MiG-29, for instance, the two air inlets are situated high on the sides of the fuselage, effectively steering clear of any possible ground debris and potential engine damage. 

Slovakia says goodbye to MiG-29s, and Ukraine hopes to get them
Photo credit: Global Look Press

Earlier, a similar viewpoint was put forth by another reputable war study institution. This was based on the expert opinions of Britain’s Royal United Service Institute [RUSI], highlighted in a report published by Business Insider.

The Russian reaction

The significance of these analyses has surged in tandem with the recent political climate. Formerly dismissed as “pro-Russian” rhetoric or inaccurate criticism, these insights are now at the heart of the Russian Federation’s threat against NATO — highlighting their increasing relevance. 

F-16 fired a 5th-gen missile with upgraded circuit guidance cards
Photo credit: USAF

Let’s revisit an incident that transpired a few days ago. The Russian emissary, Konstantin Gavrilov, who leads the Russian delegation in the Vienna negotiations concerning military security and arms control, sent out a forewarning to NATO and its member nations. 

Gavrilov declared that Russia stands prepared to enforce stringent measures should NATO airfields serve as a launching pad for fighter jets transferred to Kyiv. The envoy insisted on differentiating between facilitating aircraft transfers to Kyiv and allowing Ukraine’s military forces to use NATO countries’ air bases. The latter, he emphasized, could provoke “serious consequences”

To put this into perspective, BulgarianMilitary.com established a direct, interconnected link between Gavrilov’s statement and the potential issues that may prevent Ukrainian F-16s from launching from Ukraine, an aspect we’ve discussed earlier in this piece.

If Russia pollutes the runways, the US F-16 becomes unusable
Photo by US Air Force/Senior Airman Erica Webster

Poles, Romanians, and Slovaks

Russian media outlet, Vzglyad, reported a statement from Diplomat Gavrilov asserting that “NATO took note” of his caution. Gavrilov relayed that “without delay, the Western diplomats relayed our communication to their respective capitals, primarily to the Polish, Romanians, and Slovakians.” 

Gavrilov further added, “This caught them off-guard, and as expected, they were left speechless.”

The counteraction

At present, Russian forces are not actively targeting Ukrainian airports in their campaign. The rationale is simple; as it stands, these airports don’t play a significant role in the current conflict. However, should Ukraine receive any Western fighter jets, the situation could change, leading to the potential utilization of long-range air-to-surface missiles by Russian aviation. 

Under such circumstances, simply targeting the areas where Ukrainian F-16s are stationed could suffice to achieve their objective. The focus would not necessarily be on targeting the aircraft directly or the air traffic control structures, but rather the runways. By simply causing damage or contamination to the runway [such as fuel spillage], they could effectively neutralize any threat. 

US F-16 pilot: Su-35 looks good at air shows, but it's junk
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The execution of this strategy might involve a Russian airstrike, spearheaded by a combination of Su-30/Su-35 and MiG-31 aircraft. The deployment of either half-ton or one-ton bombs, or air-to-surface missiles, could create sufficient cratering damage on the runway, rendering it unusable. This would, in turn, disrupt the Acurine road support for a significant number of weeks.

F-16 landing gear

The issue of a dirty runway doesn’t solely affect the F-16’s nose pod. Under these conditions, the F-16’s undercarriage becomes less stable, noted Justin Bronk, an air warfare analyst at Britain’s Royal United Service Institute [RUSI]. Bronk pointed out that the American-designed fighter boasts a balanced thrust-to-weight ratio, keeping the aircraft as lightweight as possible. But this design advantage also has its drawbacks. 

Ukraine: We will get either F-16 or Gripen, talks are underway
Photo credit: PixaBay

We should bear in mind that we are discussing American or Western-style designs, which consistently diverge from their Russian counterparts. Russian Mikoyan and Sukhoi aircraft are constructed to function on basic runways, contrastingly American aircraft require a smoother surface, such as a floating runway. Bronk brings this comparison into focus, citing the F/A-18 as the model for American fighter devices.

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