Ukrainian air force (UAF) pilots, operating with Soviet-era aircraft, are struggling to contain the superior Russian Air Force amid the ongoing counteroffensive operations, leading to a fervent plea to allied countries for the transfer of F-16s.
Outmatched by Russia’s technologically advanced Su-35s equipped with sophisticated radars and long-range missiles, Ukraine’s aging Su-25s, introduced in the 1980s, are at a significant disadvantage.
In an interview with CNN, Su-25 pilot Oleksyi, known by his callsign “Pumba,” reveals the grim reality of their situation, stating, “We lose many aircraft to these interceptors.”
With firsthand experience of the arduous struggle, he and his fellow pilots have endured the devastating toll of losing numerous comrades since the commencement of Russia’s full-scale invasion a year and a half ago.
In a somber reflection, Pumba mournfully shares, “I lost my squadron leader and my wingman in combat. They are both heroes of Ukraine.”
Pumba remains one of the few dozen pilots who continue to take to the skies for the Ukrainian Air Force. As Ukraine shifts to an offensive stance, the indispensable role of assault aviation pilots, including Pumba, has never been more crucially needed.
The Ukrainian Air Force, despite being outnumbered and outclassed by its Russian counterparts, is actively engaged in providing critical support to the Ukrainian ground forces at the front lines as the counteroffensive gains momentum.
However, Russian Air Force is maintaining air superiority on the battlefield.
Previously, a senior Ukrainian official expressed concern over Russia’s Su-35s, stating that these advanced fighter jets are granting Russia “increasing dominance” in the skies above the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.
The official also said that Ukraine’s aging Soviet-era aircraft lack the necessary capabilities to counter this formidable threat effectively.
“Spas,” a deputy battalion commander from the 128 Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, compares the relentless aerial operations of Russian aviation to waves seen in conflicts like Vietnam and Afghanistan.
The continuous presence of helicopters and airplanes throughout the day underscores the pressing need for adequate aviation support.
According to CNN, Ukraine’s aircraft inventory has seen some reinforcements, with a total of 45 Su-25s and MiG-29s received from NATO and allied nations in Europe. However, the challenges faced by the Ukrainian Air Force go beyond mere numbers.
Acknowledging these difficulties, a MiG-29 pilot known as “Juice” told the US-based media outlet that Western nations could significantly assist them by equipping Ukraine with the highly sought-after F-16s, highlighting the importance of advanced fighter aircraft in strengthening Ukraine’s air capabilities.
Why Does Ukraine Want F-16s?
While underscoring the limitations of their Su-25 aircraft, the Ukrainian pilot expressed a strong desire to operate the technologically superior US-made F-16 fighter jets.
Juice believes the Ukrainian counteroffensive could witness significantly improved effectiveness and safety for ground personnel if they had access to F-16s.
Labeling it a potential “game changer” for the entire war, the Ukrainian pilot noted the crucial role the F-16s could play in supporting Ukrainian forces and their resistance efforts.
The advanced capabilities of the F-16s are believed to be instrumental in carrying out crucial tasks for the Ukrainian military.
Like Pumba, the MiG-29 pilot “Juice” also shares concerns about Russian air defenses and the Su-35s, but he highlights that Ukraine has been able to mitigate their effectiveness by adopting new tactics.
Maneuvering to evade threats and identifying optimal windows for engagement have yielded positive results. However, this does not guarantee safety, as Russia also adapts and changes tactics.
Despite receiving Western-supplied missiles, their efficacy remains below 100% while using the current aircraft. Juice explains that due to range and accuracy limitations, Ukraine can only utilize around 25% of the potential of radar-targeting missiles like HARM.
He further emphasizes that the same missiles deployed on F-16s would be significantly more effective, underlining the need for access to these advanced aircraft.
According to Alex Hollings, a US marine speaking to EurAsian Times, Ukraine’s use of HARMs with their Soviet-era aircraft is limited by the lack of system integration. They likely employ a “Pre-Briefed mode” where the missile is given coordinates to fly towards a known target area.
In contrast, he added that the NATO aircraft, like the F-16, can utilize the HARM’s capabilities more effectively, with the ability to detect and engage nearby threats using onboard systems and automation.
Furthermore, Ukrainian pilots believe there is an urgent need for a significant number of fighter jets to level the playing field and substantially impact the battlefield.
They state that at least one squadron, comprising 12 to 20 jets, is required to address immediate challenges.
However, to effectively fulfill tasks in frontline and peaceful regional operations, they emphasize the necessity for three to four squadrons.
The Ukrainian officials believe more than 100 jets would be essential for long-term perspectives and sustained effectiveness.