Armed Forces

Western fighters for Ukraine? Air to Air Missiles are the Key

Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-27
Photo. Dave_S (CC BY 2.0)

What are the factors that may influence the choice of Western fighter aircraft for Ukraine? Which option – Gripen, F-16 or F/A-18 would suit the best and to what extent operational environment specific over Ukraine would influence that decision? speaks with Prof. Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology, RUSI.

Jakub Palowski: Let me start with a general question. What is the way the Ukrainian Air Force should be supported now, what are the primary missions, also considering potential deliveries of Western-designed tactical aircraft?

Prof. Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology, RUSI: The primary driver of support for the Ukrainian Air Force should be the air to air mission. Fundamentally, Ukraine - even with a small number with Westen jets - will not be able to change the balance of forces on the ground. However, if the Russian Aerospace Forces can gain air superiority over the battlefield, that could shift the balance against the Ukrainian Army. So the requirement, in short to medium term, before the ceasefire is achieved, is primarily preventing the Russian Aerospace Forces from gaining the aerial superiority over the battlefield.

That will significantly affect the way the West would try to support the Ukrainian Air Force transition to NATO fighter aircraft. For example, some have suggested the A-10 Warthog or an adaptation of a trainer aircraft like Hawk. Those are unsuitable, because they do not offer any significant air to air capability, even though they could offer air to ground capability in a non-contested environment.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the Russian Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) laydown is extremely lethal and very extensive. And while Ukraine to some degree had success in creating short-term windows of access to operate at low level using the AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile), the actual hard-kill rates of those sort weapons is very low. So the actual degradation of the Russian air defence capabilities is also low, especially to long-range S-400 and S-300V. This means that any Western aircraft supplied will have not only to deal with Russian fighter aircraft threat, but also with a long-range, layered and very capable ground-based SAM threat.

Last but not least, the chosen fighter needs to be able to operate from a network of dispersed airbases, because Russia can hit any runway in Ukraine with cruise and ballistic missile. Even with air defences in place, advanced ballistic missiles can get through.

What about Patriot, that recently has been delivered to Ukraine?

First of all, the number of Patriot delivered to Ukraine is very low and they have many other assets to defend. Secondly, even with Patriot missiles, capabilities like Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, the air-launched ballistic missile, may still get through. The Ukrainian Air Force is not under regular attack on the ground now, because Russia likely has more important targets for its missiles, but if Western fighters were supplied, they without a doubt would become a priority target quickly.

So anything supplied has to be able to do what Ukraine Air Force has survived by doing in the past, and that is frequently moving and operating from various relatively

austere, often relatively short runways airbases and highways to avoid being targeted. That, as well as maintenance support requirements, will affect any choice of the fighter aircraft for Ukraine.

So what are the potential options?

The two choices that are discussed most often are F-16 and Gripen. F-16 has the advantage of being available in large numbers both in Europe and in US, as well as being extremely flexible in terms of the air to ground weaponry it can effectively employ, and being a competitive beyond-visual-range fighter when employing later versions of AIM-120 AMRAAM air to air missile.

On the other hand, it has noticeable drawbacks. First and foremost, its effectiveness at beyond visual range against Russian jets from low altitudes is contingent on the US being ready to supply the latest versions of AIM-120 AMRAAM - either AIM-120C7/C8, or ideally AIM-120D. However, those are the same missiles US relies on for its own air superiority requirements against China or against any other state actor.

If they were supplied to Ukrainian Air Force for air-to-air use, they would be fired against Russian jets flying over Russian territory. They would very likely be rapidly recovered and not only examined by Russia but also shipped to China, and potentially also to Iran, and thus be compromised. These long range AMRAAM variants are necessary precisely due to Russian long- and medium-range SAM systems, because the threat from these will keep any fighter at very low altitude near frontlines. Even Western-supplied fighters will not be able to fly at high altitude and speed to maximize range, as the AMRAAM was originally designed for. To avoid being engaged by S-400 and similar systems, you will have to launch the missiles from low altitude against targets flying at medium and high altitude and with higher speeds. Consequently, missiles will have to start flying in dense, high drag air and climb against gravity, which will dramatically reduce their effective range.

To what extent is the range reduction relevant?

To give a comparison: if the Ukrainians had the same Russian R-77-1 (NATO code AA-12b missile that the VKS has used for many of its medium range engagements, they would have approximately only a third of the effective range that the Russians normally have. Because Russian fighters can fire the missiles at higher speeds and high altitudes, in less dense air which results in lower aerodynamic drag. We need to remember that the difference in effective range may be massive, depending on the altitude and speed from which the missile is fired, and the target flight behavior.

This is why any Western fighter going to Ukraine needs to have missiles with the longest range possible. That means either late model AMRAAM, either AIM-120C7/C8 or ideally AIM-120D, or Meteor.

And Gripen is the platform that could carry Meteor.

Gripen has certain advantages over F-16 when talking about a potential solution for Ukrainian Air Force. The F-16 has relatively complex requirements for support and logistics. The airframe and undercarriage are also relatively light, not designed to operate from rough surfaces, and the air intake in the undercarriage is highly vulnerable to foreign object debris ingestion which can damage the engine. Thus, it would be quite difficult to sustainably operate F-16 the way Ukraine has been operating its MiG-29s and Su-27s over the last months - from austere, dispersed bases.

Gripen, on the other hand is much more tolerant of such conditions than F-16. It is also designed for short take off and landing operations, so it would be capable of using more Ukrainian dispersed airbases. It is also designed for a relatively low maintenance footprint, and Sweden routinely operates the aircraft with conscripts with 2-3 months of training making up 5 out of the 6 people in each of its maintenance crews. And last, but not least, it can fire the European Meteor missile, which would give it the required long-range capability, without the need for US export approval. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK would all have to approve Meteor export, which would be a challenge, but at least in Europe's case the security tradeoff from possible compromise of our top-of-the-line missile is directly against a Russian threat now vs later.

On the other hand, the number of available Gripen is lower.

That is true, but we also need to take into account the number of fighter aircraft Ukraine would be able to operate and sustain effectively. It is not only a question of money, aircraft, spare parts and infrastructure, but also taking Ukraine's scarce highly skilled, English-speaking engineers and technicians from other key Western equipment support tasks and reallocating them to maintaining fighter aircraft. Right now in Ukraine almost everyone that is highly technically skilled and speaks English has responsibilities critical for the ongoing war effort. So for every additional quantity of fighters supplied there is a very significant opportunity cost, because other important military support tasks will have key people taken away from them.

So, even if we consider F-16, assuming there is a go-ahead, the actual number of delivered aircraft would be a couple of squadrons at best. There would be no dramatic difference between the number of F-16 and Gripen actually delivered in a sufficient timeframe to make a difference this year. Ukraine does not have an unlimited number of pilots available for rapid conversion training either.

Is there a role for Great Britain to play? I assume Eurofighter Tranche 1 would not be a desired choice here, but perhaps UK could give its own Eurofighters in exchange for Spanish F/A-18 Hornet, which are also available of using short runways, though they are older than Gripen?

There are also a limited number of F/A-18 Hornets practically available, though Spain perhaps could exchange some for Typhoons and Australia could also deliver a few that remain in storage. The largest problem with F/A-18 is that while it would be easier to maintain than F-16 or Typhoon and it would certainly be able to operate from austere airbases, it would still be dependent on the US agreeing to late model AMRAAM export approval to be effective in the core air-to-air task.

I would also like to highlight that the likely unwillingness of the US to deliver late-model AMRAAM (as opposed to the older AIM-120B used in NASAMS) to Ukraine is not about being selfish. It would involve a genuine, serious trade-off against the core effectiveness of American airpower against China and other state threats because – like I said earlier – once being fired at Russian aircraft across the frontlines, those missiles would almost immediately be recovered, examined, shipped to China and thus compromised.

Thank you for the conversation.