Ukraine entered 2024 with the hope of receiving a number of new weapons from its international partners, including F-16 fighters. For the Russian occupation forces, however, the year began with serious losses in aviation, which has already made Ukrainian skies dangerous for the occupiers. But how will the situation change with the arrival of the F-16 and beyond? Let's try to figure it out.
Losses of the occupiers
The unexpected loss of three Su-34 frontline bombers near the temporarily occupied Chaplynka in December 2023, followed by the loss of an A-50 reconnaissance aircraft and damage to an Il-22 over the Sea of Azov in January 2024, raised the question of the safety of Ukrainian skies for Russians, even over the temporarily occupied territories.
Since December 2023, the number of Air and Space Forces of Russian Federation combat sorties over the left-bank Kherson region has sharply decreased, but it is worth noting that the intensity of Russian tactical aviation in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions has increased. At the same time, the A-50 and Il-22 were driven away from their usual routes, but not completely stopped.
Many people have the idea that in 2024, when the Ukrainian Air Force receives F-16s, it will immediately start some kind of "Top Gun" style air battles, but this is not the case.
2024 will indeed be the year when Russian aviation will be pushed out of Ukrainian airspace, I am sure of it, but it will happen in a completely different and not-so-exciting scenario. Although the results will be really exciting.
Air Battle 2024
I have already discussed the capabilities, especially in terms of firepower and missile range, of F-16 light fighters, and therefore I will focus on their main means of long-range air strike - AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.
The most attractive missiles for us are the AIM-120C-5/C-6/C-7 and AIM-120D missiles with a range of 105, 120, and 180 km.
In fact, these missiles will allow the F-16 to hit Russian aircraft not only over the entire left-bank Kherson region but also over the north of the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula. Any of the Russian warplanes will be shot down before they even enter the area to launch their missiles or drop their missiles. But under a small condition.
For these missiles to be as effective as possible, they vitally need targeting support from long-range radar detection aircraft - AEW&C (or, as they are known here, AWACS). Given that these aircraft are on regular duty in Romanian airspace, I do not doubt that such support will be provided.
So, the destruction of Russian aviation will be carried out at distances where they will not be able to counter us? Will it be a kind of "beating of babies"? Not quite so.
Russian tactical aviation has a range of long-range air-to-air missiles. In particular, the R-77 (110 km), R-33 (160 km), R-37 (allegedly up to 400 km)... But all Russian long-range air-to-air missiles are as dependent on air defense aircraft as Western ones. However, to enable Russian missiles to use their full potential, Russian air defense aircraft will have to leave the safe zone and return to the high-risk zone.
In fact, Russian aviation will be driven (at least in the skies over the left-bank Kherson region) into a dead end, as any attempt to counter Ukrainian aviation will be fraught with the potential loss of combat or reconnaissance aircraft. At the same time, the use of F-16s may be limited near the contact line in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as this is an area beyond the effective use of AEW&C aircraft, without entering Ukrainian airspace.
That is why, in my opinion, the dominance of the F-16 will begin in the left-bank Kherson region. But it is not only these aircraft that will win in an air battle.
Ground support and more
There are three ingredients in the recipe for expelling Russian aviation from Ukrainian airspace, and the F-16 is only one of them. I do not rule out the possibility that the F-16 will not be the only Western fighter jet to enter service with the Ukrainian Air Force.
Ukraine regularly focuses on the delivery of German TAURUS missiles, and as these delays occur, all the indignation is directed at German politicians. However, this is not an entirely fair criticism. After all, there is also the unresolved issue of integrating these missiles into the Su-24, which is a much more problematic task than the integration of Storm Shadow and Scalp-EG. But this is not a problem for SAAB Gripen fighters.
Moreover, during a speech in Davos, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström noted that Stockholm would not mind the transfer of SAAB Gripen to Ukraine, provided a number of conditions are met. In August 2023, it was reported that Ukrainian pilots would arrive in Sweden to take a training course on the SAAB Gripen.
However, this is only an assumption, and as for the other components of the expulsion of Russian aviation, they are also well-known - long-range air defense systems and ATACMS.
ATACMS missiles will have to limit and generally make it impossible for Russian aviation to use airfields in the temporarily occupied territories. Accordingly, this will reduce the efficiency and increase the resource costs of Russian aviation. At the same time, air defense systems will retain high risks for the Air and Space Forces of the Russian Federation, even when no F-16 takeoffs are recorded.
In 2024, Russian aviation will be restless in Ukrainian skies, but the Ukrainian Air Force will also face difficult tasks of complex use of several means of countering the Russian Occupation Forces, and the highest degree of accuracy is required when using these means, as the enemy also has something to respond.
It should also be understood that the results will not be immediate, and it will not be possible to create a "no-fly zone" for the Russian occupation forces over the entire combat zone, but in general, it is quite possible.