Amateur Hour Part III: It’s Still Not About the Airplane
Ukraine is fighting for its existence and the war that began with unchecked Russian aggression in 2014 has become the most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II. Ukraine, ably defended by the strength of its people, has been strongly backed by the United States and NATO powers, receiving a steady stream of materiel. Ukraine’s citizens have proven able to adapt Western military systems on the battlefield, making Ukraine a capable and lethal adversary, as the Russians discover daily. But not everything that NATO can provide can be sent immediately to the Ukrainian military or absorbed instantly by soldiers and airmen.
The Ukrainian government has been asking for fighter aircraft since the first week of the war, when aerial battles with Russian Aerospace Forces (the Vozdushno-kosmicheskiye sily, or VKS) took a terrible toll on Ukraine’s much smaller air force. But the high profile of the request, and NATO’s apparent resistance to provide Western fighters, hides a basic truth. The value of fighter aircraft provided in a hurry is questionable, as the fighter aviation enterprise cannot be bought off the shelf and training is paramount. The discussion over why Ukraine should have fighter aircraft and how quickly they can get them obscures the real nature of Ukraine’s immediate requirement — ground-based long-range precision strike.
Airpower is not a magic wand to be waved across the battlefield. Fighter aircraft do not, by themselves, grant an instant and comprehensive airpower capability upon delivery. Because, as always, it’s not about the airplane.
Revolution, Not Evolution
The foundation of an airpower capability is fundamentally people, not hardware. An aircraft, of whatever type, does not grant a capability unless it is flown by capable and trained individuals, competently maintained, and adequately supported. Ukraine’s air force is not a fledgling air force; it operates fixed and rotary wing aircraft that perform airlift, counterair, and ground attack missions. It has a 30-year history of using and modifying legacy Soviet aircraft, and Ukraine has its own aviation industry. Ukraine has managed to maintain a force despite horrific losses in the early days, and has even managed to add new defense-suppression capabilities, enabled by MiG-29 Fulcrum carrying American-supplied AGM-88 High Speed Antiradiation Missiles. But it does not operate Western aircraft and it never has. By necessity, its training programs, tools, support equipment, and experience base are entirely based on three decades of independent operations with Soviet legacy aircraft, which were designed to support a Soviet style of airpower employment, not a Western one. The Soviets operated their airpower under centralized control, primarily in support of the ground component, while Western airpower embraces aviator initiative and utilizes airpower for a wide range of missions beyond just flying artillery.
Switching over to Western aircraft is possible, of course, and Ukraine is an excellent candidate for doing so. But the provision of Western fighters like the F-16 is not an evolutionary step; it is a revolutionary step that will require the Ukrainian air force to start from scratch. Ukraine has experience operating single-mission aircraft — their interceptors like the MiG-29 Fulcrum have only a rudimentary ground attack capability, and their Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft have no air to air capability at all. The F-16 has evolved into a capable multirole fighter that has no parallel in the ex-Soviet aviation enterprise.
The F-16 is a great example of an upgrade to a multirole fighter. It is a mature system, is easy to fly, reliable, flexible, and there is a large stock of expertise in all aspects of F-16 support in a variety of countries. The F-16 is often a reasonable choice for air arms wishing to transition to a more advanced capability. Poland, Iraq, Romania, and Egypt all made the F-16s the centerpiece of their modernization efforts when electing to purchase American-built fighters. None of these conversions resulted in an instant improvement in warfighting capability, and by most measures the Iraqi experiment has failed. Using the U.S. Air Force as a sample case, the F-16A went into production in August 1975, at a time when its predecessor, the Phantom II, was still in production and the F-15A had not yet entered operational service. The first F-16As were delivered in August 1978 (three months after the 5000th Phantom II rolled off the St Louis production line) and went directly into test.
Tactical Air Command’s first jets arrived on January 6, 1979, at the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base. The first squadron to be declared operational was the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which was declared IOC (Initial Operational Capability) almost two years later on October 25, 1980. In March of the next year the squadron deployed 12 aircraft to Flesland Air Station, Norway for Cornet Falcon, the F-16A’s first overseas deployment; an event that lasted a month. The 4th tactical fighter squadron took 21 months to reach initial operational capability in 22 months in an Air Force that already had the maintenance, weapons, and training infrastructure necessary to do it. The F-16A was also an inexpensive day fighter that did two things — counterair missions within visual range, and accurate delivery of free-fall ordnance (including nuclear weapons). It did not deliver laser-guided ordnance, it did not do defense suppression, it possessed no beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, and it did not do close air support. As an indication of how the program progressed, the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course at Nellis Air Force Base graduated its first class in 1982, three and a half years after the delivery of the first operational jets. Notably, these units were not placed directly in combat, because the F-16 was years away from its U.S. Air Force combat debut.
It is unrealistic to assume that because Ukraine has a cadre of combat-experienced fighter aviators that they will be able to jump into F-16s and employ them anywhere near the potential of the aircraft. Fighter aircraft are not internationally standardized, and expertise in operating one does not grant expertise in operating another, particularly with respect to design and maintenance legacies as disparate as American and Soviet design bureaus. The U.S. Air Force entered the F-16 program with a substantial number of combat-experienced aviators from Vietnam, and an experienced cadre of aircraft maintainers backed by a robust logistical infrastructure that had been built around American-built aviation. Make no mistake, the initial cadre of a new aircraft is handpicked from some of the most capable aviators available, and the maintenance cadre is normally very heavy on both experience and skill with very similar aircraft, tools, processes and logistics support. The personnel assigned to the first F-16 squadrons were doing things that the Air Force had long been proficient at — they were just doing it in a new airplane. As the F-16 matured the squadrons added capabilities gradually, one at a time, as the F-16 received a beyond visual range capability with the AIM-120, integrated LANTIRN and the associated ability to deliver laser guided bombs, and incrementally added new sensors, new weapons, and new capabilities. Realistically, Allied Force in 1999 was the first combat operation in which the F-16 units combined to conduct every mission that the F-16 might realistically carry out — and no one unit did all of them.
“You just don’t throw somebody an F-16 and wish them good luck,” he said. “That is not a recipe for success, and we want to set them up for success.”
Any survey of the hundreds of articles written within the last year about providing F-16s to Ukraine will reveal that many have a common thread — they were not written by either a fighter aviator or by anyone with practical experience in a fighter aviation enterprise. Accordingly, the acquisition of a fighter aircraft is considered synonymous with the capabilities that a fighter aircraft brings in the service of air forces that are used to employing them. Acquisition of the F-16 does not automatically convey all of the capabilities that the aircraft has, all in one shot, because while the aircraft is potentially capable of a wide variety of missions, that requires aircrew capable of using those capabilities. And to start, even experienced aviators are put through a transition course. At the end of this course, the F-16 pilot is mostly safe, and qualified to be a wingman. This does not mean that the new aircrew is proficient in the mission(s) of the squadron to which they will be assigned — it means that they can fly the aircraft and work the systems in a relatively benign training environment — at least well enough to graduate. Upon arrival at a squadron, they will enter a mission qualification program to allow them to meet the minimum standards for mission readiness. A newly mission-ready wingman is only minimally useful and lacks experience with all of the aircraft capabilities. In short, they are qualified to hang on to a flight lead while being led through a mission that they do not yet know how to do well. As the United States learned in Vietnam, these are the aviators who are most likely to be killed in combat operations.
After Vietnam, the Air Force analyzed their losses carefully, and came to the conclusion that 90 percent of aircrew losses in Vietnam occurred within the first 10 combat missions. The 414th Combat Training Squadron and the Red Flag exercises were initiated in 1975 specifically to solve that problem — by putting aircrew in a realistic “combat” environment where they could make all of the mistakes they were going to make in those first ten missions in an environment that is usually nonfatal. My own experience in Red Flag suggests that the “mistake counter” resets to zero when an aviator changes aircraft. By the time I left the F-4G, I had 1,000 hours in the type, was an instructor, and by virtue of being stationed at Nellis had participated on more Red Flag exercises than most aviators do in a career. When I returned for a Red Flag in the F-15E, I had a bunch of new mistakes to make, because the capabilities of the new airplane offered me opportunities to make unwise decisions with a whole new set of hardware. This suggests, at least to me, that it might realistically be a requirement that Ukrainian pilots experience a Red Flag before any potential combat employment.
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.”
–Captain Alfred “Lamps”Gilmer Lamplugh, RFC
Support: Doing the Hard Stuff
No aviator gets to go anywhere without a large number of trained and skilled personnel maintaining the aircraft and assembling and loading the weapons. The contrast between Soviet and Western designs is considerable; even the tools are different. The maintenance personnel, the ammo troops (who build weapons), and the weapons troops (who load them) will also have to start at the bottom of the training pyramid — and this will require a degree of adaptation that is nontrivial. Once again, there is no “instant maintainer” course — the Air Force uses a series of skill levels to categorize technicians. At graduation from tech school an airman receives a “3” skill level — apprentice. Level 5 (journeyman) takes years of on-the-job training. Level 7 (craftsman) is possible after five to six years of service, although the average is closer to a decade, and Level 9 (supervisor) can be expected after 15 to 17 years of service, on average. A healthy organization has a pyramid skill structure, but a new organization takes time to build it up.
To make matters just a little more difficult is that the training manuals, the technical orders, the maintenance procedures, and all of the written (and video) components of the architecture — plus trainers and (in some cases) simulators — will have to be rewritten into Ukrainian. It is unreasonable to expect that all of the support personnel have a high proficiency in English. This can and has been done in other languages, but as with anything else, it takes time, and the first draft is rarely sufficient.
The logistics enterprise to support a viable combat aviation enterprise is substantial. As it is, certain repair capabilities for systems already fielded in Ukraine have exceeded the ability of Ukraine to locally maintain. The establishment of a repair facility in Poland for NATO-supplied artillery is one example of Western-supplied equipment being impossible to repair from in-country capabilities. The Full Up Power Pack (or FUPP) on the M-1 tank might require similar arrangement, and indeed Poland also has a covert repair facility for Ukraine’s ex-Soviet tanks as well. But where an artillery barrel or a tank barrel can be shipped across border by road or rail, an airplane has to be fixed where it landed if the aircraft needs a repair that makes it safe to fly again.
What for, Anyway?
Aside from the marquee value of advanced fighter aircraft, what does Ukraine need them for anyway? In terms of air defense, Ukraine has used its air force for defensive counterair, which means that they have defended Ukraine from Russian aircraft and cruise missiles over Ukrainian-held territory. Today, Russian aircraft no longer perform penetrating missions and the cruise missile defense burden has been assumed by ground-based air defense, which has a much shorter reaction time. Even with AIM-120s, Ukraine’s F-16s are seriously outnumbered and “out-sticked” by the Russian Aerospace Forces, referring to the force size and range of missiles respectively. The MiG-29 uses the same Aircraft-Launcher Interface Computer that the F-16 does for anti-radiation missile launch, so without the missile’s targeting system (and its additional training, mission data, and supply burden), the F-16 offers little improvement. The F-16 could enhance close air support, except that Ukraine’s conventional forces do not do close air support. This requires extensive training between air and ground forces.
The F-16 would not be a good choice for penetrating attack to deliver precision weapons. The Russian Aerospace Forces have capabilities to shoot down conventional aircraft in areas covered by their air defense. While it has been argued that “supporting Ukraine in the air remains a prerequisite for success on the ground,” this is demonstrably untrue. The Ukrainian military successfully mounted two successful counteroffensives to recapture Kherson City and Kharkhiv Oblast without reliance on airpower, NATO-provided or not. For now, air superiority is not a prerequisite for Ukrainian or Russian ground operations (unless the Russian military wants to try another air assault); it is only important that the Russians cannot gain it. The reality is that the greatest potential value of Western fighters is for the post-conflict environment, not the current one — which means that the effort to build a modern fighter capability should have been begun already, even if there will be no near-term effects on the war.
There is validity to the argument that Ukraine is being provided with enough equipment to not lose the war but not enough to win it. Appeasement dies hard, and both the United States and NATO have been skittish about providing assets that might “escalate” the war. Appeasement, in this context, involves treating the war as one that is inherently asymmetrical, where Russia’s ability to strike deep inside Ukraine (at mostly civilian targets) is accepted as a necessary asymmetry and any capability for Ukraine to respond is “escalatory.” And so, Russia is granted a priceless sanctuary from which to launch operations against Ukraine, while not only denying Ukraine the ability to strike inside Russia, but denying the ability to strike long-range targets inside occupied Ukraine. Russia should receive no such sanctuary, which is incompatible with both international law and with past U.S. practice; the United States first bombed and later invaded Cambodia precisely because of the presence of sanctuaries for Communist forces, echoing a long-running air operation in Laos with the same motivation.
Ukraine has conducted a brilliantly effective interdiction campaign against Russian forces — within the limited range of the M31 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System missiles launched from HIMARS and M270 batteries. Interdiction is a deep battle, designed to prevent forces and materiel from getting from where they are, to where they need to be. But it typically requires strikes at a greater distance than the 70-plus-kilometer range of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS). Ukrainian artillerymen were able to compel the withdrawal from Kherson City by interdicting the Dnipro River crossings with GMLRS fire, but Ukraine’s single most important interdiction mission of the war, performed against the Kerch Bridge, was reportedly conducted with a truck bomb because the target is out of range of any bridge-breaking munition in the inventory. Successful interdiction of the Kerch bridge is critical to the successful recapture of occupied territory in the south — without an interruption in Russian supply lines a victorious counteroffensive might not be possible.
Similarly, Ukraine is put at a major disadvantage with respect to Russian air-launched cruise missiles, which it must take on one at a time on the way to their targets. The obvious historical solution to this conundrum is to catch the bombers on the ground or in the air prior to launch. The United States and NATO lack any suitable long range anti-air munition, but strikes on bombers at their home base are both legitimate and practical — the U.S. considered the obliteration of a mere three IL-28 Beagle bombers in Vietnam as such a high priority that an insanely high-risk mission was launched against them. Ukraine tried such an attack with repurposed Tu-141 reconnaissance drones, damaging an aircraft or two at Engels airbase and forcing the Russians to relocate their valuable bombers further east. But while the new Russian locations are well out of range, the point remained — Russian airpower could and should be attacked at their airbases.
The airpower solution that could be brought into play immediately, and which could serve to both interdict Russian supply lines and devastate their short-range airpower, is obvious: long-range missiles. The United States and NATO have a variety of operational systems that could be provided, quite literally, overnight, ranging from the truck-launched variant of the RGM-109 Tomahawk (originally scheduled to field this year) missile through the air-launched Swedish KEPD-350 and the Anglo-French Storm Shadow, right up to the extended-range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System or the U.S. Army’s battlefield missile of choice, the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), now in its 31st year of operational service. These systems would provide similar capabilities to missile systems that the Russians have been using in droves since March 2022, and both Tomahawk and ATACMS allow immediate use by Ukraine using methods that they have already employed and have shown that they can execute well and effectively. Air-launched weapons, as always, will require some integration work. As a bonus, as one-time-use air vehicles, the missiles require trivial maintenance support, and a logistical infrastructure that is an expansion of an ammunition supply effort that Ukraine already has.
Western support to Ukraine, assisting in their defense against unprovoked aggression by a neighboring power, is clearly in the national interest for the United States and its NATO partners. Airpower, of course, should be a critical part of the current support plan and modernization should begin as soon as possible, even though the results of the effort are unlikely to be realized for several years. The investment in modern airpower almost always pays off, because it acts as a seedling that allows the receiving air force to advance its entire airpower enterprise one element at a time, instead of putting off a modernization effort into the indefinite future. Even a small force of F-16s, for example, would serve to build the enterprise foundation and provide an experienced carder of operators and maintainers as a baseline for future growth. As long as the force is not squandered with a premature commitment to combat operations, the investment will pay off over the long term, and allow Ukraine to build out the human capital necessary for achieving desired mission capabilities over time.
In the meantime, the argument about providing Western fighter aircraft remains inappropriately focused on complex hardware and not the human elements necessary to make combat aviation what it is, while distracting from airpower applications that should be put into play immediately. The argument about the F-16 or any other Western fighter consumes time focusing on a capability that cannot be employed in the near term, at the expense of discussing airpower capabilities that could have an effect in short order. Ukrainian operation of a Western fighter is a challenge for a future Ukraine and a problem for a future Russia, while NATO glosses over the uncomfortable reality that there are missile systems that could have an immediate battlefield effect, if only Ukraine had them. Rather than focusing on an airplane type, supporters of Ukraine should focus on the battlefield effects that Ukraine needs to achieve, especially interdiction and the attrition of Russian strategic and tactical aviation, on the ground. Those effects can be gained without aircraft, illustrating the airpower truism that it is not about the airplane.
Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha (Col., USAF, Ret.) is a former Instructor Electronic Warfare Officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel variant of the Phantom II, and the F-15E Strike Eagle, racking up over 150 combat missions in the two aircraft over 10 combat deployments. He successfully transitioned from a fighter first flown in 1954 to one 30 years younger and knows what it takes, and how long.
Image: United States Air Force