Ukrainian F-16 pilots have a problem: They'll have to fly low to survive

Missiles love altitude, but Russian air defenses will keep Ukrainian pilots close to the ground.

That makes it obvious what the Ukrainian Air Force could do with its 85 announced F-16s once the fighters begin arriving in Ukraine in the coming weeks, Forbes reports.

The Air Force could try to intercept Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers that are dropping as many as 3.000 satellite-guided bombs on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

A high-flying, fast-flying Sukhoi Su-34 can drop a hovering bomb 25 miles – or even 40 miles as is the case with the newer, longer-range KAB bombs. It's enough that Ukraine's existing air defenses – ex-Soviet fighters and missile batteries on the ground – can't always fight back.

But Ukrainian F-16 pilots will have their work cut out for them, explained analyst Justin Bronk in a new study for the Royal Institute of London. "Regular interception of bomb flights will be a very big challenge," he wrote.

The main problem is Russia's ground-based air defenses, which make the flight of Ukrainian warplanes extremely dangerous if they fly at high altitudes almost anywhere in Ukraine - but especially within about a hundred miles of the front line, within range of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air .

While it is possible for Ukraine to acquire 100-mile-range air-to-air missiles for its F-16s, ostensibly allowing Ukrainian pilots to shoot down Russian bombers from the edge of Russian air defenses – in practice they will not achieve full range.

"When close to the front lines, Ukrainian pilots will have to fly very low to avoid being detected and shot down by layered Russian defenses."

"At such low altitudes, missiles launch into dense air with a lot of aerodynamic drag and must climb against gravity to reach the altitudes where their targets are." As a result, by the time their rocket engines burn out after the first few seconds of flight, they would not reach nearly the same speed or altitude as if launched from a fighter flying in thin air at high altitudes and at supersonic speeds."

Fired from low altitude, the AIM-120 loses potentially tens of miles of its range, possibly putting Russian bombers out of range – unless Ukrainian pilots can somehow fly deep into Russian-controlled territory and survive long enough to shoot their targets.

As Bronck pointed out, one possible solution to this problem is a longer-range air-to-air missile like the Europa Meteor, which can fly as much as 125 miles under optimal conditions. But the Meteor is incompatible with the F-16 – and also incompatible with the Mirage 2000-5 fighters that France has promised Ukraine.

But the only fighter of the type Ukraine can get that can carry the Meteor is the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen.

Stockholm has expressed a willingness to donate surplus Gripens to Ukraine – but has also agreed to pause any transfers until the Ukrainians finally receive their first shipments of F-16s.


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