Russia’s Su-35 might strut the skies with an aura of superiority, but it’s not invincible, especially when it crosses paths with an F-16 in the hands of Ukraine’s skilled pilots. This is the expert consensus published in Newsweek back in May.
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The Su-35, a jewel in Russia’s military fleet, is an impressive fourth-generation aircraft armed with fifth-generation technology. It has been playing an active role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
As Ukraine edges closer to acquiring Western-made fighter jets, the battle for aerial dominance intensifies. Among the contenders, the F-16 stands out. Experts believe this iconic aircraft could be the key to modernizing Ukraine’s air force. However, it’s still unclear which model of the F-16 Ukraine might receive.
Ukraine’s current fleet is reminiscent of the Soviet era and closely mirrors that of Russia. Acquiring F-16s would not only signal a major technological leap but also align Ukraine more closely with NATO’s military strategy, experts suggest.
Su-35 is designed to fight the F-16
Despite political and logistical hurdles, observers believe that Ukraine might soon be bolstered by the presence of F-16s.
Frank Ledwidge, a former British military officer, believes that a direct confrontation between Russian Su-35s and US-made F-16s in Ukraine is unlikely. However, the Su-35, one of Russia’s most advanced 4.5-generation fighters, is specifically engineered to outfight aircraft like the F-16.
The Su-35, an upgraded variant of the Su-27, is designed to enhance combat effectiveness against air, land, and sea targets. This is according to the United Aircraft Corporation, a predominantly state-owned Russian aerospace and defense corporation. The Su-35 took its maiden flight in February 2008.
David Jordan, co-director of the Freeman Aerospace Institute at King’s College London, notes that while the Su-35 may seem superior on paper, the reality is more nuanced.
Strategy will be key
Former RAF senior commander and air marshal Greg Bagwell agrees. He told Newsweek that the comparison between the two aircraft extends beyond their specifications and is more complex.
Experts emphasize that the usage strategy of these jets can make a decisive difference on the battlefield, despite the F-16’s older airframes and Ukraine’s potential lack of access to the latest avionics.
Some of Russia’s air combat tactics may be too rigid, according to Jordan. This could prove a disadvantage regardless of the aircraft they’re piloting.
Pilot quality is also a determinant. Though no country has officially pledged to provide Ukraine with F-16s, several, including the United States, have committed to training Ukrainian pilots on these advanced aircraft.
Who will see the other first
Experts also highlight the importance of the situational awareness the aircraft provides. “If Ukrainians have a more precise understanding of Russian aircraft positions while Russians only have a vague idea, Ukrainians could gain an advantage even before visual contact is established,” Jordan explains. Jordan further speculates that F-16s under Ukrainian control could pose a formidable challenge.
Retired Air Commodore Andrew Curtis, formerly of the British Royal Air Force, suggests that the outcome of a potential aerial confrontation between F-16s and Su-35s would largely depend on the air-to-air weapons Ukrainians possess. He adds that while the F-16 remains one of the best globally, Russian pilots could potentially tip the scales in favor of the Su-35 using medium and long-range missiles.
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