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How the Gripen will complement the F-16 in the skies over Ukraine

In August 2023 eight Ukrainian pilots, along with 65 maintenance and servicing personnel, began a shortened F-16 training course based in Skrydstrup, Denmark. This is the first wave of Ukrainian pilots and personnel to be trained to operate the fleet of an estimated 61 F-16 jets from various donor countries. In early November, the first five jets arrived in Romania, where training is now centrally conducted, and Denmark estimates that Ukraine will receive jets ‘this summer’.

Observers eagerly anticipate the effect of the F-16 on the aerial frontline against Russian forces, and believe the jet may break the stalemate in the skies above Ukraine. However, despite the projected success, the practical ability of the F-16 in combating the variety of threats faced by Ukrainian forces in attempting to achieve air superiority is up for debate.

The F-16 in Ukraine

It is undeniable that the veteran F-16 platform (introduced in 1978) is an incredibly useful asset to meet Ukrainian requirements. Indeed, Michael Loh, commander of the United States (US) Air National Guard, has emphasised how the F-16’s low-altitude strike and anti-air defence capabilities would be beneficial to Ukraine. He also pointed out how the F-16 has a vast network of users and suppliers which would be crucial in supporting combat operations against Russian air power.

Operationally, the F-16 is a very capable platform which has a good balance between its ‘within visual range’, air-to-ground, and anti-air defence abilities. Despite being equipped with the tried and tested Aim 120 AMRAAM, the earlier models (block 50 and 52) lack adequate ‘beyond visual range’ abilities. However, this weakness is supplemented by the potential numbers of available airframes. Indeed, the availability of units and parts is an important consideration behind F-16 donations as opposed to other airframes. This is reinforced by the fact that a number of nations are phasing out their older F-16s for newer aircraft such as the F-35. Globally, approximately 2,200 F-16s are currently active; it is the most common combat aircraft in the world. So far, Denmark has pledged 19, and the Netherlands has reportedly pledged 42, bringing the total number to 61. Norway and Belgium may also commit F-16s, although this is yet to be confirmed.

But it is not all good news. There are serious shortfalls with the F-16 which must be considered. The solution it seems is to also equip Ukraine with the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen. Ukrainian personnel have been training in the aircraft since May 2023, and Hungary’s ratification of Sweden’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bid means the transfer will now likely take place. The Gripen was originally designed by the Swedes to be capable of staying in the fight against the vast Russian air force in the event of a conflict. Doctrinally, it is a perfect fit for Ukraine’s needs and as a complimentary platform, both in terms of combat capability and the politics of long-term military aid to Ukraine. 

Enter the Gripen

The Ukrainian air force is fighting against a larger and more advanced adversary, the Russian air force. Ukraine has to overcome serious challenges such as sophisticated air defences, various long-range strike fighters, and cruise missile equipped bombers such as the TU-95 and TU22M. These are areas where the F-16, by itself, has capabilities which may be lacking.

Consider the challenge for Ukraine in how Russia uses its bombers to launch long-range cruise missiles, causing significant damage to key civilian and military infrastructure. Being able to disrupt (or potentially even shoot down) these bombers may deter Russia from launching further bomber attacks. But it is questionable whether F-16s alone could carry out this kind of attack effectively. The F-16 would likely come equipped with the Aim-120 AMRAAM, but with a range of 105 kilometres (km) at a speed of Mach 4, the Aim-120 is limited in comparison to the new MBDA (Matra, BAe Dynamics and Alenia) Meteor, of which the Gripen is compatible and the F-16 is not. With a rumoured range of up to 260km, the Meteor would provide the ability to, at minimum, threaten Russian heavy aircraft, forcing them to launch their payloads further behind their lines, and ultimately reducing how deep within Ukraine Russia could strike. 

The Gripen can also operate with limited ground crew (as low as four or five support personnel per airframe) from unimproved surfaces such as old runways, roads and grass airfields allowing the platform much improved concealment and dispersal, thus improving its survivability greatly. This is a necessity for Ukraine as many suitable airfields have been destroyed; the F-16 will have to launch farther from the front.

Furthermore, layered Russian fighters and anti-air defences protect large swathes of land from Ukrainian air attack – albeit not entirely as recent strikes on Russian targets in Crimea would indicate. But the addition of the Gripen platform, even in small numbers, along with the F-16 would potentially grant Ukraine the ability to better penetrate these defences. A combined strike with Meteor-equipped Gripens denying access to Russian fighters, and AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile equipped F-16s attacking Russian air defences, creates the opportunity for Ukraine to conduct offensive action on the ground, safe from attack by Russian aircraft. 

Further to the combat benefits the Gripen will bring, there is also a political argument in favour of their delivery, particularly with the possible re-election of Donald Trump looming this November. Indeed, as with his policy of disengagement in Afghanistan, Trump is predicted to take a similar stance and pull or severely curtail funding for Ukrainian support. This is a substantial concern as the majority of the F-16’s maintenance and supply lines originate in or solely rely on the US. This presents the question: how long will Europe be able to supply Ukraine’s F-16 force in the event of a wind-down in support from the US? It may be left solely to Gripen suppliers to provide sufficient numbers and resources to meet Ukrainian requirements. 

There are of course some complications with this model. First, it relies on Ukraine being supplied with Meteors to go with any potential Gripens. Although the Ukrainian theatre would provide the opportunity for active conflict testing, the Meteor is unproven. The Meteor is also very expensive, at US$3.2m (£2.53 million) per unit. And it is a very advanced capability, so there is always a risk of it falling into Russian hands.

Finally, with Hungarian stalling overcome and Sweden’s membership in NATO progressing, the Gripen should soon be joining the F-16 in the skies over Ukraine. If the Gripen can create a long-range exclusion zone or even a challenge to Russian air power, it opens the door for many F-16s to exert their force upon Russia’s ground assets. In essence, the Gripen would act as a shield which enables the F-16 to exert the full potential of its utility for the Ukrainian air force.

Thomas Atmaciyan is Charles Pasley intern at the Council on Geostrategy.

Embedded image credit: Nick / (CC BY 2.0 cropped and overlaid)

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