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Why is there such a fuss about F-16s?

Since Day One of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine and others have been demanding F-16s. Rare is the day that Garry Kasparov does not take to Twitter to condemn Joe Biden for withholding these supposedly war-winning weapons.

But are they potential war winners?

Many years ago I asked a military man why air superiority was so important. “Because you can see.” he said. Except in this war – where drones are ubiquitous – you don’t need fighters to see.

So, what can an F-16 do for you? To answer that question I have done quite a lot of binging and duckduckgoing and come up with very little. The best I could find was Ryan McBeth’s video. It’s not a long video but if even that is too long the TL;DR version is that an F-16 fires missiles that hit fighters, ships, radars and the ground.

Great. Except that it’s all missiles. Why not fire those missiles – or their equivalents – from the ground? I can imagine a couple of objections. I suspect that converting an air-launched missile into a ground-launched missile is not easy even if the Argies did pull off the trick in the Falklands. Also, physics would suggest that – all things being equal – an air-launched missile has a greater range than a ground-launched one.

Fine. So why do you need an F-16 to do this? Why not any aircraft that can get up to the right height? I suspect there are satisfactory answers to all these questions and that when F-16s do start appearing they will make a big difference. But I would prefer to rely on something better than suspicion. And there’s also the observation that big and expensive stuff i.e. planes, tanks and ships, have done almost nothing in this war apart from getting blown up. If the F-16 proved effective it would be something of an exception.

Update 1700. I said that it was a rare day that Kasparov fails to condemn Joe Biden and today was not one of them. Also, Ian recommended Justin Bronk. Here he is in The Spectator. F-16s are not easy.

22 comments to Why is there such a fuss about F-16s?

  • Ian

    I’m no expert but the standard response is they have longer range and better radar and can be fitted with the longer-range AMRAAM air-to-air missile and could therefore operate closer to the front line, possibly given them the option of using JDAM-ER effectively. It could be a major deterrent not just to fixed-wing Russian aviation but also the Ka-52s, etc. I’d recommend Justin Bronk on this topic.

  • APL

    Why not any aircraft that can get up to the right height?

    1. Bolting any old shit onto an airframe not designed for it will likely destroy the aerodynamics of the aircraft.
    2. You can’t just add a payload onto an airframe that wasn’t designed for it. But even then,
    a) you need the control systems to provide the missile with it’s targeting information.
    b) you need the control systems to release the missile at the correct time.
    c) you need to make sure that dumping that amount of mass mid air won’t bugger up your own trajectory and lead to the
    potential of a mid air collision of the aircraft and its now free flying payload.

  • Clearly, we need to start a Patreon or GoFundMe or somesuch to buy Patrick an F-16 so he can finally get to the bottom of this.

  • Quentin

    What piloted aircraft like the F16 provide over drones are flexibility and safety. A drone can – theoretically – be hijacked. A drone cannot provide the human factor, the “that doesn’t look right” sixth sense, innovation, and initiative.

  • TomJ

    The UK has supplied ground launched AMRAAMs to Ukraine.

    However, the primary advantages of Air Power are height, speed and reach; looking at JDP0-30 it seems agility and ubiquity have been promoted since I was at Cranwell. In air to air terms, an airborne radar can see a wider wider picture than an ground based system and air to air missiles can engage a much wider range of threats, as the launch platform is a lot more mobile than a bloke on the ground with a MANPADS or even a truck with a missile battery on the back. In ground attack terms, an air launched missile can be stored much further back from enemy fires and, compared to an identical missile, has a significantly longer range as a lot of its initial acceleration has been handled by the aircraft launching it.

    Further to APL’s point and possibly more important is weapon system integration; to be useful you want the weapon to be able to take positioning and targeting data and other instructions from the launch aircraft’s systems. Getting Storm Shadow (which is an exceptional bit of kit which came into service around the same time I did and has aged better) onto Sukhois (using launch rails from decommissioned Tornado GR4s) was a remarkably quick bit of work. I don’t know if it’s a bodge that wouldn’t have passed a peacetime release to service or there were contingency plans leading to development a long time since, but I am impressed either way.

    Finally, I have always liked the name of the Storm Shadow warhead which has two explosive elements, a penetrator charge designed to knock a hole in defensive structures and the main charge designed to go though the hole and mess up everything inside: BROACH – British Royal Ordnance Augmented Charge Head.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Thanks APL. Exactly the satisfactory kind of answer I was looking for.

    CayleyGraph, me and an F-16? That is a truly frightening thought!

  • Sigivald

    What APL said.

    And also, for ANY airframe to be effective, you need not just pilots, but well-trained pilots. (Oh, and also a full suite of dedicated maintenance equipment and personnel, including for many airframes specific crypto systems to allow software updates, since they’re computers and need that kind of thing).

    Ukraine sadly probably lacks a cadre of experienced F-16 pilots – and one reason for US air superiority is that the US spends fantastic amounts of money actually letting its fighter pilots fly, compared to also-ran air forces.

  • We cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by fear in pursuit of Truth.

  • Once you have sufficient SEAD, you can do a lot more with a full load of 1000 kg JDAMs than a Storm Shadow or ATACMS. And you can do vastly more effective full spectrum SEAD/DEAD with F-16s than you can with cunningly kludged Soviet era aircraft bunting only partially functional AGM-88 HARMs at Russia SAM systems.

    Tactical bunker busting with a Storm Shadow is prohibitively expensive. A 500-1000 kg JDAM on the other hand…

  • Martin

    I suppose they don’t want just any old F-16s. There is a world between early F-16s and the newest Versions and different Blocks. With combat airplanes, what really counts today is actually not so much the plane itself (e.g. the cell, engine and flight control) but the avionics, it’s systems and especially its integration into the battlefield.

    Especially the lack of the latter is one of the reasons modern planes often perform somewhat lackluster in combat when operated by nations without the matching infrastructure for this, e.g. AWACS, sattelite information, integration with ground troops and such.

    Maybe the underlying wish here is not for F-16s as such but to get planes which are already integrated into a “battle information infrastructure” and directly participate from the information, without having these abilities oneself-

    Another reason why F-16s might be because the request has at least some chance for success. They are somewhat ubiqutous, available and reasonably affordable, compared to some other competitors. Which also makes servicing them etc. easier.

  • NickM

    Suitable F-16s (later models with AMRAAM capability) can rule the skies. Ruling the skies means depriving Russia of using offensive airpower and it also means enabling, as Perry hinted, “bomb-truck mode”. This doesn’t just mean if you’re in a T-72 you’re fucked (though it does) but it also enables the utter destruction of what passes for Russia’s logistics system. Take that out and the war is won. Russia’s ratbag collection of conscripts, criminals and chancers will fold when they are out of vodka and ciggies. And that is how you win a war. You don’t do it by killing the enemy. You do it by getting them to surrender.

    Anyway, the F-16 is cooler than The Fonze. Or, if that seems a bit too fanboi, I guess you could just ask an Israeli Airforce colonel, “What use are F-16s?” and be prepared for a long answer.

  • JohnK


    I agree. The thing is, there are just a lot more F16s than there are other suitable planes. The F15 is great, so is the F/A18, but there are less of them about, and they cost more. The F16 was meant to be a light and cheap plane to complement the F15, but it has developed into a great plane in its own right.

    If we give Ukraine the tools, they will finish the job.

  • Patrick Crozier

    “offensive airpower”. Do we mean Russia bombing cities or Russia bombing front-line and logistical targets? Because it seems to me – I could be wrong – that Russia is doing a lot of the former and very little of the latter. Would the F-16 be any use in the battle against whatever-they-may-be-called missiles which I understand are launched from Russian jets flying somewhere over the Caspian?

  • jgh

    All the answers to “Why F16s”. But for all that, why not just *any* flying bomb-dropping aircraft? Why specifically F16s? Is this like the idiots in my local council who insist in being deployed iPads, when I keep insisting that for the work they do any old tablet will do. They think “iPad” *MEANS* portable tablet-shaped computing device. Do they think “F16” *MEANS* flying bomber? Can we donate to them some decent English teachers instead?

  • anon

    Patrick: Concerning Russian air attacks on frontline and logistic targets, one example of a particular problem cited recently is Russian helicopters, notably Ka-52s, firing air-to-ground missiles against Ukrainian armour while being located ~10km behind the Russian lines. Ukraine’s ground-based air defence systems with the capacity to engage them at that range are stretched thin, since many are having to defend cities against exactly the sort of long-range attacks to which you refer. So the frontline forces might manage short-range air defence, but are vulnerable to the helicopters’ stand-off attacks.

    Consider what free-ranging F-16s would do to change that situation, simply by providing an anti-air asset available wherever it’s needed over the frontlines, able to engage at range.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I understand that this is why my compatriots have strapped some missiles normally fired from Typhoons to a truck.

    My observation is that a month or so ago the pro-Russians were regularly posting footage from KA-52s. Recently, not so much. As with so many things I could be wrong.

  • jgh: But for all that, why not just *any* flying bomb-dropping aircraft? Why specifically F16s?

    1. Systems integration. All the various role/weapon mixes can be plug-and-play optimised for appropriate block F-16s

    2. Truly vast pool of spare parts on the world market of friendly nations, compared to any other comparable NATO aircraft.

  • Fraser Orr

    Did anyone give even a moment’s thought to one good reason not to send F-16s? That is costs the taxpayer a boatload of money to send stuff abroad to be blown up? Money that they have to borrow and will therefore be paid back by my great grandchildren, for whom this war will seem as distant and irrelevant as the Boer war?

    Did anyone also wonder why F-16s? Why not Typhoons? The Europeans decided to make their own fighter and not buy American. The war is being fought on the European continent so why don’t Germany and the Czech Republic, and Finland and Lithuania, and so forth — the people most affected, the people on the border — buy that European jet and send it? It seems perfectly capable to operate as a multirole fighter, and based on the comments above it doesn’t seem that an absolute bleeding edge fighter is needed.

    A lot of these country’s per capita national debt is tiny compared to the USA: Germany and Finland’s is a half, the Czech republic and Lithuania’s is a quarter, so why do we have to borrow mountains of money when they are perfectly capable of doing it?

  • Did anyone give even a moment’s thought to one good reason not to send F-16s? That is costs the taxpayer a boatload of money to send stuff abroad to be blown up?

    That they will get blown up is a good reason to not send previous generation fighters to a nation trying to stop Russia remaking the security architecture of Europe? Presumably you’d have opposed WW2 lend-lease to UK on the same grounds.

    Money that they have to borrow and will therefore be paid back by my great grandchildren, for whom this war will seem as distant and irrelevant as the Boer war?

    If Russia wins, it will really will remake the world in ways that will strike your grandchildren as vastly more important than the Boer War.

    Did anyone also wonder why F-16s? Why not Typhoons?

    Not anyone who can look at a spreadsheet, no.

    Number of F-16s built: about 4,500. Number of Typhoons built: about 590.

    Take a guess which has a vastly larger pool of spare parts & a plethora of assorted systems available from various production blocks from friendly nations. F-16 is being phased out by many nations & replaced by F-35. The F-16s Ukraine ends up with will almost certainly come from the stocks of the 8 European nations operating them.

    A lot of these country’s per capita national debt is tiny compared to the USA…

  • Patrick Crozier

    The cost seems an odd complaint. The equipment being sent already exists, is getting out-of-date and is being sent to do precisely the job it was designed to do. And the end result will be the elimination of a would-be superpower. As wars go this is a cheap as chips.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT Kasparov: I see from his article that Bobby Fisher is not the only great chess player who is/was IyI (intelligent yet insane).

    One HAS to be insane to take Trump’s first impeachment as evidence that he (Trump) blackmailed Zelenskyy.

  • bobby b

    Just as an aside: Lawrence Person does F-16’s: