“A launch has been detected. Manoeuvre!”
The order of the Ukrainian ground team is clear – a Russian Su-35 fighter jet has fired a missile at Silk’s aircraft. He knows he has to abort the mission in order to survive.
Silk, which is the pilot’s callsign, quickly dives his MiG-29 so low that he can see the treetops. The old Soviet-era aircraft starts trembling as it is pushed to the limit. Silk navigates through towers and hills that he studied meticulously on the map while preparing for this mission.
“Such flights close to the surface are the most difficult ones,” says Silk. “You have to concentrate very hard. And because of the low height, you don’t have the time or the space for a safe ejection.”
Fighter jets like the one flown by Silk accompany Ukrainian ground attack aircraft during their combat missions at the front line. Silk’s job is to provide cover from Russian air-to-air missiles. But there is not much Ukrainian jets can do to stop them.
“Our biggest enemy is Russian Su-35 fighter jets,” says another MiG-29 pilot with the call sign Juice.
“We know positions of [Russian] air defence, we know their ranges. It’s quite predictable, so we can calculate how long we can stay [inside their zone]. But in the case of fighter jets, they are mobile. They have a good air picture and they know when we’re flying to the front lines.”
Russian air patrols can detect a jet’s take-off deep inside the territory of Ukraine. Their R-37M missiles can hit an aerial target at a distance of 150-200km (93-124 miles), whereas Ukrainian rockets can only travel up to 50km (31 miles).
So, Russian planes can see Ukrainian aircraft and shoot them down long before they pose any threat.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian Air Force has suffered serious losses – although they don’t reveal specific figures.
Russia’s claim that they’ve destroyed more than 400 Ukrainian planes doesn’t seem plausible, given independent estimates of the Ukrainian fleet’s size are at least half that number.
The IISS Military Balance 2022 report states that the Ukrainian Air Force had 124 combat-capable aircraft before the full-scale Russian invasion.
To end Russia’s superiority in the air, Ukraine wants its Western partners to provide more modern jets like the US-made F-16.
“Our pilots fly on a knife’s edge,” says Col Volodymyr Lohachov, the head of aviation development department of the Ukrainian Air Force. “But F-16 jets would allow us to operate beyond the enemy’s air defence systems.”
“Our pilots fly on a knife’s edge… F-16s would allow us to operate beyond the enemy’s air defence systems”
Col Volodymyr Lohachov
Ukrainian Air Force
And their missiles can be effective up to 150km, which will enable them to attack Russian jets as well.
“Of course, we will still be targeted,” says Juice. “But it will be an equal fight. Right now, we don’t have any response to them.”
F-16s have better radars that can detect missiles fired at them. Currently, the team that monitors ground radars must verbally communicate with pilots about threats they face.
“Our jets don’t have a system to warn about [Russian rocket] launches,” says a pilot of an Su-25 attack jet with the call sign Pumba. “It’s all visual-based. If you see them, then you just try to escape by firing off heat traps and manoeuvring.”
Russia’s air superiority means that Ukraine can afford only a limited deployment of its military aviation close to the front line, which can have a major impact on the success of any future counter-offensive operations. According to Juice, they carry out up to 20 times fewer sorties than the Russian Air Force.
And the weapons Ukrainian attack aircraft have are from the stock of old Soviet-era bombs and unguided rockets, which are quickly depleting because of limited supplies.
But it’s not just air support for ground troops. Western jets can also enhance Ukraine’s air defence systems, aviators say.
“Our aircraft have old radars that don’t see [Russian] cruise missiles. We are like blind cats when we try to shoot them down,” Col Lohachov explains.
The range of western weapons on F-16s will allow them to intercept cruise missiles “on long distances right on our borders, instead of trying to catch them somewhere in central parts of Ukraine,” says Juice.
The MiG-29 jets that Poland and Slovakia have transferred to Ukraine recently do not solve their main problems, Ukrainian pilots say. Those planes have the same old weapons and limited capacity as the Ukrainian fleet.
But the US administration has ruled out sending F-16 jets to Ukraine. Many are concerned that providing Ukraine with Western aircraft can only escalate the conflict, drawing the US and Europe directly into the war.
And even training Ukrainian pilots to fly these planes has not been approved. In fact, Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defence for policy, said that even “the most expeditious timeline” for delivering F-16s would be 18 months, and thus there was no sense training pilots early.
However, Ukrainian officials are hoping to get these jets from European countries, which would still require the US’s consent, but would be much quicker to deliver.
As for training pilots, “we can afford to send only a certain number of people for a limited period at any given time. We must avoid reducing our military capabilities here,” says Col Lohachov.
So the best option, he adds, is to start sending small groups now in order to have enough trained pilots when planes arrive.
It is clear, however, that these jets will not be delivered in time for Ukraine’s expected counter-offensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky has already announced that this operation will go ahead without waiting for Western aircraft.
Some experts question the impact F-16s could have in this war.
Prof Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), says that these jets would provide an extra layer of defence but “wouldn’t turn the war around on their own”.
Even with F-16 jets, “Ukrainian pilots would still have to fly very low anywhere near the front lines because of Russia’s ground-based threat and that would limit effective missile range,” Prof Bronk explains. “And it also means employing air power in the way the West did in wars like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, isn’t possible in Ukraine.”
Logistical challenges raise questions about whether it’s worth the effort to send F-16s to Ukraine. It’s not just about training pilots and mechanics – the infrastructure must be upgraded as well.
F-16s are designed for very smooth and long runways. Ukraine will have to adapt its current airfields to meet those requirements – resurface them, clean them and extend them.
“But doing that will be visible to the Russians from space and through human intelligence sources,” Prof Bronk argues. “And if you only do one or two bases, and then try to set up ground support to operate F-15s or F-16s, then Russians will see it and they will strike it.
“So, you would have to do lots of them. Then you’re into the question – is that worth the number of skilled personnel and the amount of political effort and logistical support that could otherwise be used for other things like tanks and artillery, or ground-based air defence systems?”
For now, Ukrainian pilots like Pumba, Silk and Juice will have to rely on their old Soviet-era fighters and attack jets.
When an alarm signals a new combat mission, they rush towards their aircraft. They give the thumbs up to mechanics to confirm that all systems on board are working.
Some of them have flown more than 100 combat missions. But they know that each flight could be their last.