F-16s to Ukraine
A few days ago U.S. President Joe Biden announced the training of Ukrainian pilots for the F-16 multirole fighter aircraft:
President Joe Biden told G7 leaders on Friday that the US would join in efforts to train Ukraine’s pilots on fourth generation fighter jets including the F-16s, a senior administration official told CNN on Friday.
This has obviously been in the planning for some time. The timing of the announcement at the G7 summit was simply chosen to maximize the propaganda value for Biden.
The process we have seen has repeated itself again and again. As pro-Ukrainian blogger (with no military knowledge) describes it:
This has clearly become a proxy war between Russia and NATO, supercharging the political considerations inherent to any war. Ukraine’s goal is to wheedle as much military aid as humanly possibly out of NATO, especially the United States. The United States’ goal is more complex: give enough aid to push Russia back, but not so much that its proxy war with Russia escalates into an actual one.
This dynamic has created a Hunger Games scenario where Ukraine is constantly playing to the cameras to cajole extra gifts from the wealthy sponsors who watch its every move over the internet in real time. I had decided against using this analogy until I saw Ukrainians themselves using it. There is something grotesque and sobering about finding yourself in this position, and writing about it. But it is what it is.
I had assumed that F-16 training had in fact already started several weeks back. The EU blabber mouth Josep Borrell now all but confirmed it:
The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Tuesday that the US green light to allow Ukrainian pilots to get training to fly F-16s has created an inexorable momentum that will inevitably bring the fighter jets to the Ukrainian battlefield.
Borrell added that training for Ukrainian pilots had already begun in Poland and some other countries, though authorities in Warsaw could not immediately confirm the news. The Netherlands and Denmark, among others, are also making plans for such training.
No decision on actually delivering fourth-generation fighter jets has been taken yet, but training pilots now – a process that takes several months – will help speed up battle readiness once a formal decision is made.
The process will be much faster than many assume.
The jets the Ukraine will get have already been selected and will go through ready maintenance. The Ukrainian pilots, who already have some experience on other fighter jets, will get just a short introduction course – six to eight weeks or even less. They do not need to train air to air fights because the F-16 would lose any such fight against the newer and better armed Russian jets. They just need to learn the basics, starting, landing, going up to a certain height and launch point, release whatever long range weapon will be on board. Anything else would be suicide.
The big question is where to start and land from. The F-16 has a relative short combat range of some 500 kilometer and there will be no air to air tankers. There ain’t that many airfield that are suitable for the fighter jet’s missions.
Someone who seems competent explains the problem (edited):
The Ukrainian Air Force, to my knowledge, has had to use guerilla airfield tactics to keep the Russians guessing as to where they are operating from. This is to prevent Moscow from targeting the aircraft/impromptu airfield from drone attacks and air strikes, destroying stationary aircraft or the rendering the “runway” unusable. Soviet-built aircraft are sublimely suited to this.
For ex, the MiG-29 “Fulcrum” uses automatic Foreign Object Debris (FOD) covers that close for initial start up (vid). Meanwhile louvres located at the top of the wing-root open to provide alternate air intake to the jet engines. Upon take off, once the weight on wheels (WoW) switch in the nose gear detects it is off the ground, the louvers cycle closed and the FOD covers on the primary intake retract, allowing max airflow to the engines once the danger of FOD damage has passed. This ingenious design allows the Fulcrum to operate, not only from unimproved runways or even highways, but even from grass fields. The wing itself and the distance to the ground preventing small stones and debris from getting sucked into the delicate engines.
I cannot stress how dangerous and debilitating FOD is to aircraft. A single rock, bolt, nut, or minor road debris can have a cataclysmic effect on a modern high-performance jet engine. It may not even happen immediately, the damage could happen on take off, then progressively get worse during flight as the blades, now potentially bent or unbalanced begin to self-destruct the engine internals. Even if a MiG-29 happens to shell out an engine because of the careless placement of a bolt or tool by a mechanic or the ingestion of a bird during flight or take off, the MiG HAS TWO ENGINES which are isolated in separate bays, preventing the destruction of one engine from FOD-ing out the second.
The F-16, by contrast, is definitely not suited for this style of airfield. The bottom of the intake lip sits approximately 30” from the ground with no provision of alternate intake. In addition, all the suction flow of that air comes from the sides, fore, and ground since no air can be ingested from above the engine (that’s where the fuselage is). With no provision for FOD protection or alternate, high-mounted intakes during the entire time spent on the ground, this calls for rigid and inflexible FOD control measures from the location of engine start, to taxiing routes to the runway.
In the USAF, this meant hundreds of maintainers walking at arms-length intervals two to three times a day with eyes on the ground looking for any and every piece of debris that could be ingested by the multi-million dollar vacuum cleaner with only ONE engine we were charged with maintaining. In addition, an almost constant procession of street-cleaners rumbled up and down the flightline, taxiways and runway. Everything had to be spotless lest we risk the aircraft, or worse, the pilots.
Imagine the preparation it would take to complete this process on a 10,000 foot long straight highway, in the dark, while trying to be as inconspicuous as possible so as not to draw the attention of collaborators or Russian spies. You couldn’t hop from highway to highway or run from unimproved airfields like the Ukrainian Air Force can do with MiG-29s, you’d be handcuffed or at the very least less mobile. Imagine a disused Soviet airfield that suddenly had all its weeds plucked from the cracks in the concrete, concrete patched, the runway spotless. What signal does that send? “F-16s could, will, or are operating from here.”
There are several other issues discussed in the above thread. The maintenance philosophy behind U.S. and Russian build planes is different. The Russians just change factory parts and systems, U.S. maintainer try to repair them locally:
The MiG-29 averages about 11 hrs of maintenance for every ONE hr of flight. The F-16? A whopping increase to 18.5 maintenance hrs for every one hr of flight time. These are per aircraft with experienced crews. These figures also assume decent airframe hours on the aircraft.
The Ukraine will also need a sufficient number of competent maintainers. The training for them will likely take more time than for the pilots. The author of the above suggests a solution:
Plenty of mechanics in Europe and the US are happy to lend their services to the UAF as members of the “International Legion” or the modern day iteration of the “Flying Tigers”. Myself included.
Well, good luck doing maintenance on the F-16s that will soon sit on those few available and thereby quite vulnerable Ukrainian airfields.
Russian air defenses, from the ground and from the air, can certainly suppress any F-16 flights coming near to them.
The only sensible purpose of those planes is thereby their one or two time use as a launching vehicles for long range missiles like the British Storm Shadow cruise missiles that were given to Ukraine. It is easy to train for those missions but I doubt that they will make any noticeable difference.
Reprinted with permission from Moon of Alabama.
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