Patriot shortage leads F-16 production amid Ukrainian losses

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Ukraine is gearing up to receive its first F-16s in the coming months. It’s already evident how many will be delivered this year and the next. There’s even talk of an uninterrupted supply period that stretches until 2028. However, Ukraine faces a significant challenge: protecting this valuable $50 million asset from Russian ballistic strikes. 

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War often boils down to money, and so far, Ukraine has adeptly utilized Western-donated weapons to counter Russian forces. But the F-16 is a different kind of asset, one that demands a higher level of security. Ukrainians are acutely aware of this dilemma, as Moscow possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching any airport in Ukraine. Defending against a ballistic attack is currently more challenging for Ukraine than fending off air raids by fighter jets or drones. 

Ukraine has limited anti-ballistic systems, with only SAMP-T and Patriot being capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. However, SAMP-T and Patriot systems also require protection against aerodynamic threats, as highlighted by Brigadier General Serhiy Kholubtsov, head of the Ukrainian Air Force, in an interview with Radio Libertatea on June 9.

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According to Kholubtsov, Kyiv has defenses in place against aerodynamic targets. Airports housing Ukrainian aviation are under nightly drone attacks, often accompanied by cruise missile launches. Although Ukraine does have some countermeasures, they lack sufficient rockets for a robust defense. Even portable missiles, like Stinger complexes, could prove invaluable. If mobile fire groups were equipped with these, they could intercept attacking aircraft before they penetrate deeper into Ukrainian airspace. “This would make the interior relatively safe,” says Kholubtsov. 

When it comes to modern aircraft, which Ukraine anticipates receiving as part of material and technical assistance, Kholubtsov notes that they will become significant targets for Russian forces, who will aim to hit them and subsequently boast about their success. 

At present, only advanced systems like SAMP-T or Patriot can combat ballistic missiles. For airports, these complexes are crucial for protection. Ballistic missiles with submunitions can cause extensive damage, especially if aircraft are out in the open. Even in reinforced concrete shelters, a direct hit can lead to severe damage or destruction, burning the aircraft within. “A direct hit pierces the shelter, setting the plane on fire,” Kholubtsov explained.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

It’s clear that the Russians won’t be relying solely on Kinzhals and Iskanders to target F-16s on the ground. This means the primary challenge is protecting the air bases where these F-16s are stationed. You’d need at least two Patriot batteries. Additionally, at least two NASAMS batteries are crucial to counter aerodynamic threats, and drones, and to safeguard the Patriot systems themselves. 

Immediate protection measures, such as anti-aircraft installations like the Gepard systems, are also essential. Gepards have proven effective against cruise missiles and Shahed drones. General Golubtsov noted that this constitutes the minimum necessary active protection, thus highlighting the substantial cost involved in defending F-16 aircraft. 

In response to potential Russian ballistic attacks on airfields housing F-16s, Ukraine aims to acquire more Patriot or SAMP/T anti-ballistic systems, along with NASAMS or equivalent systems. However, countries possessing these systems remain hesitant to supply them. 

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Building new assets like these demands significant time and resources. For instance, the Patriot battery is estimated to cost about a billion dollars, while the NASAMS battery protecting it runs at around $300 million. If the US doesn’t bolster its defenses, they risk losing F-16s on the ground. Rapid replacement means continued production of both F-16 and F-35 models to account for any losses in Ukraine. 

The complexities facing Ukraine are already quite evident. Using F-16s to strike within Russia isn’t necessarily a panacea for the underlying issues. While these aircraft are valuable, they are not a “silver bullet,” but they will play a crucial role in the conflict. Recently, there has been talk of deploying Ukrainian F-16s at airports near Ukraine’s borders. 

A high-ranking Ukrainian military official mentioned on Monday that Ukraine might station some of the F-16 fighter jets provided by Western allies at foreign bases to shield them from Russian attacks. Serhiy Kholubtsov mentioned that “several aircraft will be stored at protected air bases outside Ukraine to ensure they are not targeted here.” 

Photo credit: Vincorion

In an interview with U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kholubtsov explained that these F-16s could replace damaged aircraft under repair and also be used for training Ukrainian pilots abroad. “This approach allows us to maintain an operational fleet size that matches our number of trained pilots,” he said. “As we train more pilots, more aircraft will be available in Ukraine.” 

The question of whether the West will provide Ukraine with Patriot and NASAMS systems remains open. While it’s not guaranteed, the West must brace for the potential outcomes of either losing the economic struggle for Ukraine or possibly losing Ukraine itself.


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