Kremlin’s air warfare costs will soar with the F-16’s presence

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The F-16 is not the silver bullet for Ukraine. We hear this opinion constantly from Western experts, military analysts, and even from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The Norwegian from the local Workers’ Party believes that one system [referring to the F-16] “cannot change the situation on the battlefield”

Photo credit: Reddit

The Ukrainian military seems to agree with this view. It cannot be otherwise when Russia continues to use unlimited resources of manpower, land, and air combat systems. It cannot be otherwise when it became clear that Kyiv will receive about 65 F-16 fighters, not all at once, but in several deliveries. Everything depends on the level of training of Ukrainian pilots and the construction of appropriate infrastructure for the anticipated Fighting Falcons. 

The second challenge is even more formidable for Ukraine. The country must contend with the potential threat of Russian fighter aircraft destroying their developing infrastructure. If this transpires, they would have to rebuild from scratch. Moreover, there exists a genuine possibility that the delivered F-16s could face off against Russian MiGs and Sukhoi, launching from non-Ukrainian airfields.

Photo credit: Twitter

However, the F-16 assumes another significant role: it’s not destined to win the war outright, but rather to create a “crisis” in Russian airstrikes. Many experts maintain that Ukraine will deploy the American Falcons sparingly, but with precision. Western satellites and early warning aircraft circling Ukraine are expected to assist this strategy. The Crimean Bridge could become one of Ukraine’s prime targets. With resources such as Storm Shadow air-to-surface missiles and HIMARS missile launchers, the F-16 could perform its role admirably. It could absorb the lion’s share of the assault, and in the process, reduce the bridge to partial or complete rubble. 

The potential destruction of this key structure could cause a serious supply crisis for the Russian army, as well as the Russian Black Sea Fleet stationed on the peninsula. Moscow may not publicly acknowledge the threat posed by the F-16 to Crimea, but it is suspected that they quietly understand the repercussions of a damaged Crimean Bridge. This potential disruption could radically alter the tide of the war, which is likely why the Russian army is currently constructing a freight military railway that bypasses the Crimean Bridge.

According to Russian sources, this new military supply railway is designed to serve the Russian army in Crimea, as well as Ukraine’s twin conflict zones – Melitopol and Donetsk. The line originates from Rostov-on-Don, thus positioning the city as a major supplier of military resources to the Russian military. The railway line terminates in the town of Dzhankoy – the center of the Dzhankoy region in Northern Crimea, home to a population of over 35,000 people. 

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There have been remarks that the Crimean Bridge will be attacked by the armed forces of Ukraine. Even the head of local intelligence, Budanov, confirmed that an operation is under preparation. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether the first F-16 that arrived during the summer will participate in this attack. But even if the F-16 doesn’t participate, its secondary role carries significant implications. 

The F-16 is designed to challenge Russian fighters in the air. This doesn’t exclusively imply direct dogfights with any of Russia’s Sukhoi fighter jets, or their aging MiGs. The mere presence of F-16s could limit Russian air strikes and increase their cost. Arguably, the F-16 can serve as a more effective propaganda weapon than as a victory tool in direct combat.

Take the Russian fighter bomber Su-34 Fullback as an example. Currently, it is this aircraft that carries out relentless Russian raids and bombings, deploying FAB-500 bombs. However, Ukraine asserts that the Su-34 is extremely vulnerable to its air defenses, predominantly built with Western systems such as the Patriot and IRIS-T. The Su-34 isn’t as robust as the Su-35 and struggles to perform anti-aircraft maneuvers that rely on engine thrust. Ukraine even boasts of having shot down at least ten Su-34s within a matter of days. 

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Therefore, a Su-34 would be unable to evade or conceal itself from an F-16 if they encountered each other in the sky. With ground support, the F-16 would have the upper hand in sporadic clashes. This circumstance would, in turn, expose the Su-34’s escort, the Su-35, which would need to drop to a lower altitude, rendering it highly susceptible to Ukrainian air defenses and possibly simultaneous engagement with the F-16. It is known that the Su-35 is the least-frequently downed aircraft of the Ukrainian armed forces. Nevertheless, the F-16 could potentially turn it into a more frequent successful target.

Limited by the Su-34 and to some extent, the Su-35, the F-16 will check Russian airstrikes. This respite will give the Ukrainian defense a fresh outlook and create a new challenge for the Kremlin’s combat aviation to overcome. Each subsequent mission of the Su-34 will involve more than one escort. At the same time, it could lead to an increased presence of Su-35s in the sky, as Russia might be forced to engage its less maneuverable bombers – the Tu-22 or Tu-160. If ground-based radar systems might struggle to detect them, it’s not the case when a potent radar like the AN/APG-68(V)9, capable of scanning up to 170 km and tracking ten targets simultaneously, is used in the air.

Bringing down a strategic bomber in the air would be a devastating blow to Russia. In performing this pivotal role, the F-16 would signal its prominence – resonating with the saying “nothing is impossible,” a slogan of Ukraine’s Western allies. With one or two high-profile aerial confrontations, the F-16 could expedite the delivery of Patriot systems, ammunition, and potentially, more aircraft such as the Gripen for instance. All at once, Russia could lose its perceived image of being “invincible in Ukraine”.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald

The F-16 is already working in Ukraine’s favor, even if it hasn’t arrived yet. Military tacticians understand how this “non-silver bullet” will make way for more assertive actions against the Russian Federation. Intrigued? For instance, are you aware that Romania is presently constructing a highway to facilitate troop transportation to Ukraine through Moldova? This isn’t widely reported, but Ukrainian political scientist Yury Romanenko Arestovich observed that Romania is set to supplant Poland as Ukraine’s main hub. Consequently, it will become Kyiv’s most crucial partner and ally in its face-off with Moscow. As we speak, a substantial group of French troops is amassing on Romanian soil, and brisk construction of transportation infrastructure is ongoing. 

France has a strong influence over Romania, a country traditionally within its sphere of influence. France is indeed diligently working in tandem with Romania. Currently, thousands of French soldiers are stationed in Romania. Romania boasts more than 6,000 armored vehicles and a total of 36 Patriot air defense systems. These robust defenses effectively shield all of Moldova and Romania’s airspace, as pointed out.

Arestovic presented a photo that he captured from a plane, revealing a swiftly constructed, brand-new six-lane highway in Romania. This highway, which heads towards Moldova and Ukraine, was not even in the planning stages a year ago. Now, there are several similar projects in progress. Romania is keen on establishing a powerful logistics system to facilitate quick troop movements, military operations, and transfer of other goods from the south to the north, specifically towards the Ukrainian border. 

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In addition to these developments, Romania is also setting up a training center for Ukrainian F-16 pilots. Such initiatives don’t seem to be mere coincidences and are significantly influenced by the F-16s. The moment Washington gave its nod for the re-export of F-16s, crossing what the Kremlin considered a “Russian red line”, it evident that nothing was beyond the realm of possibility. While the F-16s might be leveraged more for their PR value at present, their impact cannot be underestimated. They provide a powerful platform that potentially poses stark challenges to the Russian army. However, the magnitude of this impact remains to be determined.

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