In this age of great-power competition, simmering global tensions, technological breakthroughs and climate change, it can sometimes be hard to understand what’s going on. That’s where “HCSS Explains” come in: our strategic analysts will try to provide insights and understanding of the implications of the geopolitical changes and threats around us.
Biden’s decision at the G-7 summit to allow pilot training and the export of F-16 fighters to Ukraine has been a milestone: Ukraine needs fighters to defend its cities and troops from the Russian air force (VKS) as its surface-to-air (SAM) supplies are running low. But now the next question rears up its head. With which beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (AAM) will these F-16 fighters be equipped? For long-range missiles dominate aerial warfare nowadays.
To understand the importance of this question, we will first have to dive into the physics of AAM range. This is a very complicated matter, as both the targets and the shooters are fast and fly at altitude. Both affect the effective range of the missile. Shooting at an aircraft that moves away or is higher will decrease the range, while shooting at an aircraft that closes and is lower will increase it – with all possible permutations you can imagine. Additionally, almost all AAM will burn their rocket engine in the first stage of their flight and then coast on the kinetic energy of their speed and altitude. This means AAM have little energy left at the end of their flight when they can be avoided with relative ease but are deadly at the start in their ‘no-escape zone’.
Of course, AAM must hit their target and need a homing mechanism. At long range this either means semi-active radar Homing (SARH) or active radar homing. SARH is the older method. It involves illuminating a target with a continuous stream of radar waves from the aircraft that are picked up by the receiver in the missile to guide itself to its goal. To do this a fighter must fly straight at its target while keeping it painted with its radar. All the long-range Ukrainian AAM use this method. Active homing is far more modern. In this case the missile has its own radar and will only need some waypoint updates from the firing aircraft, while it takes care of the final stage with its own radar looking for the target. This fire-and-forget capability allows the firing aircraft freedom to manoeuvre or even fly away. The Russian R-37 and R-77 AAMs use active homing and with these AAM the Russian MIG-31s and SU-35s completely outmatch the older Ukrainian MIG-29s and SU-27s.
The enormous tactical advantage that these active homing AAMs give the Russians is further enhanced by the Russian S-400 system. This very capable Ground Based Air Defence system (GBAD) can fire SAMs with a range of up to 400 kilometres. This forces the Ukrainian air force to fly low under the radar horizon of the S-400 systems that threaten it from three sides (From Belarus in the North through Russia up to the Crimea). Flying at low altitude puts the Ukrainians at a further disadvantage for they must fire from a low altitude at a high-altitude target, giving the Russian missiles literally the kinematic upper hand.
Today, old Ukrainian fighters face superior numbers of modern Russian fighters with SARH AAM from a low altitude while they are getting shot at with longer ranged active radar homing fire-and-forget AAM fired from a higher altitude. You literally cannot fight at a greater disadvantage.
To give the future Ukrainian F-16s a fighting chance, they will need a very capable missile. It must have active radar homing and a very long range so that it can overcome the Russian altitude advantage. Practically, there are only two candidates, the American AMRAAM-C/D and the British Meteor. AMRAAM-D would be ideal as it is integrated with the F-16 and has all you could ask for, but considering the risk that unexploded versions might fall in Russian hands, it is doubtful that the Americans will provide them to Ukraine: the USA don’t wish the Chinese to get a look at them, for these AAM are crucial to American strategy in the Indo-Pacific. This leaves the kinematically less capable AMRAAM-C or as an outlier, the British Meteor. Although not integrated with the F-16 yet the Meteor is an awesome missile and near unique in using a ramjet rather than a missile engine which gives it a far greater no-escape-zone and unequalled kinematic performance. Combined with F-16 this would give Ukraine a magnificent combination. And it is interesting that the British (without F-16s) are an integral part of the Dutch/Danish/Belgian/British F-16 coalition. Will they ‘just’ aid with pilot training, or does this mean the future Ukrainian F-16s will pack a Meteor sting? Undoubtedly, the future will show us.
But whatever we do, if the Ukrainian F-16s are to have a real impact, we must provide Ukraine with top rate AAMs. If we don’t, they won’t be able to do more than the old MIG-29s in which Ukraine’s brave pilots are risking their life every day.
Author: Frederik Mertens, HCSS strategic analyst
This “HCSS Explains” was written based on intel currently available. Responsibility for the contents and for the opinions expressed, rests solely with the author.