F-16 vs S-400: Ukraine Prepares For BIG CLASH; Hunts Russian SAMs Before Deploying Fighting Falcons

Ukrainian forces are intensifying efforts to degrade Russian air defense systems before receiving F-16 fighter jets later this year, according to the latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). 

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The June 12 report by the US-based think tank highlighted Ukraine’s strategic campaign to weaken Russian defenses, potentially paving the way for more effective use of manned fixed-wing aircraft in the conflict.

The assessment pointed out that the recent Ukrainian military actions have targeted key Russian air defense installations. 

On the night of June 11-12, Ukrainian forces struck an S-300 air defense battery and two S-400 batteries near the occupied settlements of Belbek and Sevastopol in Crimea. 

Geolocated images released on June 12 confirmed damage to these systems, including the destruction of an S-400 radar system south of occupied Dzhankoi and damaged S-300 assets north of occupied Yevpatoriia. 

These attacks support earlier reports from Ukraine’s General Staff regarding successful strikes on Russian air defense assets.

The assessment further noted that Kostiantyn Nemichev, founder of the Kraken Regiment of Defence Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU), confirmed on June 12 that Ukrainian forces utilized HIMARS to destroy four Russian S-300 systems in Belgorod Oblast. 

While Nemichev did not specify the exact date of these operations, the action prompted Russia to redeploy air defense assets from Crimea to Belgorod Oblast in early June 2024, thereby reducing air defense coverage around Crimea.

Additionally, DIU spokesperson Andrii Yusov corrected earlier reports about drone strikes on Akhtubinsk air base in Astrakhan Oblast, clarifying on June 12 that two Russian Su-57 fighter aircraft were damaged between June 7-8, not just one as initially reported. 

The S-300/S-400 air defense systems and Su-57 fighters are crucial to Russia’s efforts to restrict Ukrainian air operations near the front lines and support its offensive operations in Ukraine.

The ISW assessment suggests that these Ukrainian strikes are part of a broader strategy to weaken Russian air defenses ahead of the planned delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, expected to begin in small quantities during the summer and fall of 2024. 

The report states, “Ukrainian forces may seek to actively degrade Russian air defenses before Ukraine receives a significant number of aircraft in order to set conditions for Ukraine’s future use of manned fixed-wing airpower closer to frontline areas.”

The ISW believes that the successful weakening of Russian air defenses, coupled with sufficient fighter jets and trained pilots, could eventually enable Ukraine to integrate fixed-wing aircraft to support its ground forces more effectively.

Challenges for Ukraine

Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway have committed to supplying Ukraine with over 80 US-made F-16 fighter jets to bolster its defense against Russian attacks.

F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Royal Danish Air Force – Wikimedia Commons

The addition of these F-16s will significantly enhance Ukraine’s air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. However, the war has shown that no single platform, even one as capable as the F-16, can single-handedly secure victory for Ukraine. The critical factor will be how these aircraft are integrated into a broader combat strategy. 

Experts have highlighted that Ukrainian pilots who are not well-versed in the proper tactics for using these advanced fighters will not fully benefit from the capabilities of a fourth-generation aircraft. 

Retired US Air Force Brigadier General John Teichert explained that the US approach to deploying new weapons involves extensive education, training, and combat exercises to ensure proficiency. 

While Ukrainian pilots are being trained to operate these fighters, achieving the same level of proficiency as American aviators in the near term will be nearly impossible.

Moreover, the issue of pilot training has recently come to the forefront. Western officials have indicated that Ukraine will continue to face material and training constraints, likely preventing it from utilizing fixed-wing airpower on a large scale in 2024. 

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Both Ukrainian and Western officials have stated that it will take considerable time to adequately train enough Ukrainian pilots and equip Ukrainian forces with the approximately 150 F-16s needed to achieve air superiority to support ground operations.

Yet, Ukrainian officials have outlined their plans to use F-16s and other fixed-wing aircraft to limit Russian aviation activities. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Ilya Yevlash mentioned that just two F-16 squadrons, roughly 18 aircraft, could significantly impact the situation in Ukrainian airspace.

The ISW noted, “These restraints should not fundamentally constrain Ukraine’s ability to leverage airpower at scale in the long run, however, should Ukraine’s Western partners lean into supporting Ukraine’s air domain and deep strike capabilities.”