As embattled Ukraine readies to receive its first Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, a US think tank has put forward a proposal for how Kyiv could secure local air superiority, allowing its ground forces to recover territory from Russian invaders.

According to Reuters, outgoing Netherlands defence minister Kajsa Ollongren has told the country’s parliament that Ukraine will start receiving F-16s soon, though she offered few details.


Source: US Air Force

Will the F-16 be a game changer for Ukraine?

The F-16 news has apparently rattled Moscow, which has reportedly escalated its drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian air bases where it suspects that the incoming fighters, which could ultimately number up to 100, might be based.

Amid the F-16 developments, the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies has released a policy paper outlining steps that could help Kyiv achieve air superiority in selected areas. The paper, penned by former US Air Force general David Deptula and Christopher Bowie, notes that the inability of both sides to gain air superiority has contributed to a grinding war of attrition.

Given Russia’s advantages in manpower and production capabilities, a war of attrition ultimately favours Moscow. Moreover, US government restrictions on the use of American supplied long-range weapons creates an effective sanctuary from which Russian forces can operate.

The report makes clear that the F-16s alone are no panacea.

“The effect that they could have in the evolution of the conflict depends on many factors: the number of F-16s and F-16 pilots available for combat operations; the level and type of pilot training and pilot proficiency and experience; the capability or block of the F-16s provided; the weapons provided; the numbers, level of training, and proficiency of F-16 maintenance personnel; and the ability of the aircraft to survive and operate under Russian attack, among others.”

The report contends that tackling Russian forces will require Ukrainian ground and air forces to integrate tightly together to hit Russian air defences. Long-range missile strikes against radars and surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries need to take place alongside the strikes featuring thousands of one-way attack drones.

Electronic warfare can limit the effectiveness of Russian unmanned air vehicles. Meanwhile, Ukrainian SAMs can be brought close to the front lines, restricting Russian air force operations and offering cover for Ukrainian forces.

Western militaries, for their part, can play a key role in providing intelligence on the locations of Russian units. Restrictions on the use of Western-supplied weapons should also be lifted, the paper suggests.

Obtaining air superiority, even in a limited area of the front, could create a window of opportunity for ground forces to breach Russian defences. Air superiority would also allow Ukraine’s air force to strike Russian combat units, logistics, and infrastructure with heavy weapons as well as interdict Russian reinforcements.

“Air superiority could provide Ukraine with the edge it needs to gain an advantage over the Russians, break through their front lines, and change the course of the war,” says the paper.

The paper stresses, however, that close integration between air and ground units is essential for this vision to work. In addition, Ukraine might lack the trained personnel and aircraft numbers necessary to maintain air superiority long enough for a localised breakthrough to be exploited. The Ukrainian army also must have sufficient ground forces.

“However, an integrated air-ground campaign has the potential to overcome the force-size disadvantages that Ukraine has relative to the Russian military,” says the paper.