Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, recently made another impassioned plea for F-16s, arguing that Western countries would not themselves launch a counteroffensive without air superiority. Yet, Kyiv is trying to do just that while awaiting the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, he complained.
“A very limited number would be enough,” Zaluzhny said, linking their arrival to the success of Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.
That claim is as bold as it is doubtful.
Though an advanced multirole fighter, small numbers of F-16s can neither deliver air superiority to Ukraine nor can they provide a means of breaking through Russia’s heavily fortified defensive lines. And making Ukraine’s operations more complex is a bad strategy. Simplicity is a principle of war, and pivoting to a Western way of air war would be an inherently complex endeavor and raise the odds of failure. Instead of trying to overcome the multi-layered dilemmas posed by Russia’s air- and ground-to-air threats and gain air superiority, Kyiv ought to stay the course with its simple but effective air-denial strategy.
Russia’s air force on offense has failed to impress in this war, but nobody should kid themselves about Russia’s air defenses. To succeed, Ukraine would need to suppress or destroy Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), especially the S-400 threat. Relying on F-16s, equipped with High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), Ukrainian pilots would have to fly well into the S-400′s envelope to bait Russian operators into emitting. The S-400 has an engagement range of nearly 250 miles, that is, four times the range of an AGM-88 HARM. This makes it an inherently dangerous mission. Even if the F-16s survived to fire their missiles, Russian SAM crews could stop emitting and move — making it difficult for Ukrainian pilots to effectively close the kill chain. Ukraine’s losses would be high, and such a strategy would quickly become unsustainable.
But none of this should come as a surprise. Moscow would be taking a page from Kyiv’s own air-denial playbook, leveraging the inherent advantage of mobile, ground-based air defenses over expensive, fixed-wing aircraft to make the achievement of air superiority prohibitively costly. Put simply, a symmetric contest between a limited number of Ukrainian F-16s and Moscow’s large inventory of SAMs is a losing proposition for Kyiv.
Some airpower enthusiasts will nevertheless be quick to suggest that even if Ukraine’s air-denial strategy was successful against Russian troops on the offensive, air superiority is required now that the tables have turned, and Ukraine’s armed forces have taken the counteroffensive. But Ukraine’s battlefield success rests on it continuing to deny air superiority to Russia, not achieving air superiority outright. Considering the Ukrainian counteroffensive, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown stressed the important role of air denial. “It keeps Russian airpower off the back of the Ukrainians and allows them to execute a bit better, being able to use their air defense to their advantage,” Brown explained.
The biggest aerial threat to the counteroffensive comes from Russia’s exploitation of a critical deficit in Ukraine’s air-denial capabilities — insufficient numbers of mobile short-range air defense systems (SHORAD).These systems are particularly important for protecting Ukrainian forces as they advance in the open across mostly flat fields, particularly from Russian attack helicopters. Moscow is increasingly using the KA-52 “Alligator” armed with laser-guided 9K121 “Vikhr” missiles capable of striking moving targets at about five or six miles. By operating their helicopters at the edge of this weapons range, and just beyond the reach of Ukraine’s Western-provided shoulder-fired, man-portable air defense systems, Russian helicopters can remain at relatively safe distance while striking the leading elements of Ukraine’s advancing armor units.
These challenges should not cause Ukraine to abandon its successful air-denial strategy. On the contrary, they point to an urgent need for Ukraine to close a critical gap in its air-denial capabilities. Specifically, Ukraine needs mobile and self-contained SHORAD systems like the U.S.-made AN/TWQ-1 Avenger and German-made Gepard capable of advancing alongside and protecting Ukraine’s attacking forces. The United States has sent only 20 Avengers to Ukraine, but given that the U.S. Army is in the process of replacing them with a new and more modern system, it may be possible for Washington to send more Avengers to Ukraine now and backfill stocks with the new system.
The West may be tempted to speed up delivery of F-16s to Ukraine — complex enough, given the logistical challenges — and hope Ukraine can achieve the complicated and ephemeral state of air superiority, but it should ask itself first some hard questions about strategy. Too often, these debates have become fixated on individual weapon platforms and capabilities, and not the soundness of the strategy for employing these assets. The Ukrainian David ought to stay with his simple-but-effective air-defense sling to keep slaying the Russian Goliath in the skies.
U.S. Air Force Col. Maximilian Bremer leads the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command.
Kelly Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center of the Marine Corps University.
This commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.