Air defence experts say US-built F-16 fighter jets would offer Ukraine an edge over the Russian air force, but only if combined with powerful missiles and targeting information which the West would also have to provide, drawing it more actively into the war.
“It’s not a panacea, not a game-changer,” said Konstantinos Zikidis, an aerospace engineer with Hellenic Aerospace Industry, who has extensive experience of the F-16.
Most NATO members in Europe have kept open the possibility of sending their F-16s to Ukraine, even as President Joe Biden on Monday said the United States would not do so.
“The Sukhoi-35 is larger and faster and has more powerful radar,” Zikidis told Al Jazeera of the Russian fighter jet the F-16 would be up against.
But the F-16 could overcome the Sukhoi-35 if it carried powerful Western missiles and received tracking data from airborne radar, Zikidis said.
If Ukraine were to receive F-16s, they would likely come from Poland, which has said it was ready to hand over part of its fleet.
These carry the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, a 10-20km (6-12-mile) short-range infrared guided missile “undetectable by the target plane’s defence systems”, Zikidis said.
“And they have the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which covers larger distances of up to 100km (62 miles) and can continue to receive target updates from the aircraft that fired it.”
Both missiles are among NATO’s most advanced.
Wing commander, Thanasis Papanikolaou, who has flown and commanded formations of F-16s, agrees that if networked, the F-16 would offer Ukraine a clear advantage.
“The Russians are using older tactics, whereas Western tactics have evolved to use planes in combination with the navy, ground forces, airborne and naval radar intelligence – this Western type of warfare is very advanced,” Papanikolaou told Al Jazeera.
“The Su 35 may have great abilities, but it is behind the F-16 if equipped with Link 16,” said Papanikolaou, referring to a NATO communications technology that links planes, ships and ground forces in terms of data. “This enables every asset on the battlefield to share the same picture.”
If NATO’s AWACS airborne radar were to operate at the limit of Romanian airspace, it could illuminate virtually all of Crimea, a territory Ukraine says it wants to recapture, and reports suggest the White House is willing to consider helping Ukraine do so.
These carry the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, a 10-20km (6-12-mile) short-range infrared guided missile “undetectable by the target plane’s defence systems”, Zikidis said. -Al jazeera