Polish Air Force F-16C Block 52 Plus. The Block 52 variant was originally developed for USAF SEAD missions, and this variant in service with the Polish Air Force would be an ideal minimum baseline specifications capability for the Ukrainian Air Force if allowed the opportunity to procure the F-16 system to replace its outdated ex Soviet aircraft.
The Russo-Ukraine War has presented many lessons in terms of future force design requirements to achieve sustainable air domination capabilities, especially to Africa which is further declining along the capabilities curve. Since the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we have witnessed both Ukraine and the more ‘superior’ Russia failing to achieve total aerial supremacy five months into the conflict. The highest level of air dominance that Russia could achieve during the conflict is Aerial Superiority over the territories its ground forces control in the East and South-East of Ukraine.
The Battle for Air Domination:
In simple terms, air domination is the degree to which a side in conflict holds control of air power over opposing forces. To understand what this means, the most relevant levels of air domination are defined as:
Aerial Superiority: The ability to conduct air operations without prohibitive interference by the opposing force(s); or
Aerial Supremacy: The opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.
The Aerial Supremacy (or Air Supremacy) condition is only achieved when friendly operations are able to proceed without interference from opposing forces. To know the reasons why these conditions were not achieved in the Ukraine conflict by either side, we need to understand the theories on aerial warfare which details five levels to which air power exercises control of the air domain, namely:
Level 5: Aerial Supremacy (opposing forces subjected to Aerial Incapability)
Level 4: Aerial Superiority (opposing forces subjected to Aerial Denial)
Level 3: Aerial Parity (opposing forces also maintain Aerial Parity)
Level 2: Aerial Denial (opposing forces maintain Aerial Superiority)
Level 1: Aerial Incapability (opposing forces maintain Aerial Supremacy)
Each of these five grades have a counter-grade which is diametrically opposite. In other words, Aerial Supremacy for one side means Aerial Incapability for the other side, just as Aerial Superiority means Aerial Denial for the other, etc. So, looking at the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) maintaining Air Superiority over occupied Ukrainian territories means that the VKS is most of the time, though not yet totally free, to run combat operations inside the Ukrainian airspace without disruptions from the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU). Within its present state it also means that the PSU has extremely limited capability to disrupt VKS operations, or causing major losses. However, it does not mean that Ukrainian air defense capability is totally ineffective, for on the contrary, it is the current limited availability of air defense options that still exists in the Ukrainian forces which prohibits Russia from declaring a state of Aerial Supremacy in its area of operations. Basically, the state of air domination five months after the Russian invasion implies that the PSU and air defenses are suppressed to the level where the VKS can still enjoy freedom of operations within [limited] Ukrainian airspace until such time when the situation changes into Ukraine’s favor. The main limitation for Russian forces is that they need to destroy all Ukrainian light SAM’s, MANPADs, air defense artillery systems, and the last remaining remnants of the PSU before they can achieve Air Supremacy.
So, what is the major problem in terms of current VKS capabilities assessments? The main issue, as with so many other ‘modern’ Russian arms developments during the past 20 years, is the overestimation of systems capabilities based on incorrect information derived from mainly Russian (dis)information operations which in general overestimates combat system capabilities to the level where Russian government officials and military planners also believe it (a product of Russian arms development corruption to enable increased defense spending since no-one actually anticipated a major conflict of the current scale which would have exposed these inaccuracies as observed in the present). An example of this in relation to air dominance, is looking at the NATO assessed capabilities of the more modern Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35 systems. In the West these systems were praised as ‘multi-role’ aircraft, whereas in reality the VKS still have not proven these ‘multi-role’ (multi-mission) capabilities in any of the conflicts it has supported during the past decade from either a doctrine or capabilities perspective. Now, to understand the reasons for this over-estimation of capabilities, we need to understand why the West often does that intentionally (same doctrine applying to the current over-estimation of PRC combat capabilities), as a means of securing government funding to stay ahead of the curve in terms of research and development of combat capabilities improvements. This is understandable (as a means of curtailing political bureaucracy), and it also reflects in the superior quality of ‘obsolete’ Western combat systems compared to ‘modern’ Russian systems. The effects this had on the Russians is that they also accepted the overestimated Western assessments of its capabilities for it indirectly enhanced its national image, basically providing free marketing for foreign sales to Russian friendly states not being in favor of purchasing Western combat systems for whatever [mostly unjustifiable] reasons. Also, by no means would any of the Russian arms developers publicly admit to their systems being lesser capable than what the West claims it to be, why Russian planners also unquestionably believed their capabilities to be far greater than what it actually was (the ‘magical’ effects of effective information operations). Furthermore, with the West knowing the actual [deficient] capabilities in Russian systems being sold to its adversaries, the West always knew how to counter Russian systems effectively in the event of conflict (as proven in various locations where NATO forces intervened during the past two decades).
Now, looking at current VKS systems and why it is designed to be large platforms (especially the Sukhoi family of fighters), we need to go back to the 1970’s when they were initially designed to operate over anticipated West German battlefields from bases located in Poland and other Baltic states. At the time, East German (GDR) bases were already stocked to capacity with shorter range combat systems (predominantly Mikoyan MiG variants). Therefore, these larger aircraft had to carry more fuel over longer distances to reach the intended battlefields. Now, because the aircraft were large in design, it required more powerful propulsion which in turn improved dogfighting capability against an anticipated F-15/F-16 equipped NATO threat. In terms of research and development inputs dating back to the 1990’s, much of the current ‘modern’ Sukhoi fighters development resulted from Indian Air Force (IAF) requirements. The IAF requested Russia to develop a ‘multi-role’ variant equipped with Western avionics and combat systems in India. The result was the Sukhoi Su-30MKI which made all subsequent variants famous for being ‘multi-role’ fighter bombers, further leading to increased foreign sales. However, in terms of arms development for the VKS, the process of requirements research and development based on doctrine improvements works totally different compared to how it is done in the West, and based on the IAF program alone, none of the IAF design improvements actually fed into the enhancement of VKS combat capabilities. The VKS development philosophy considered extended range as the primary capability requirement at the cost of reduced combat capability as a multi-role fighter-bomber. The VKS considers the interception role as primary capability, why the bulk of the VKS capability in the form of the Sukhoi Su-30SM is in fact an interceptor, further justifying why VKS crews are exclusively trained for that role. The Sukhoi Su-35 was later developed as a cheaper, simpler, and ‘improved’ sub-variant of the Su-30 which in turn was based on the single-seat Su-27, with a primary role as an ‘interceptor’ with no multi-role capabilities. In fact, looking at the current VKS fleet, there are no ‘multi-role’ aircraft systems in service with the VKS comparable to what NATO defines as ‘multi-role’ capabilities. The bomber/strike roles in the VKS are performed by dedicated platforms such as the Sukhoi Su-24 and the more modern Sukhoi Su-34. In fact, the VKS intended to replace all older Su-24 systems with newer Su-34 systems. The Su-34 crews are also trained exclusively for the ‘front bomber’ role. It was only after various complaints in Syria that Su-34 crews were also trained to use R-27 and R-77 for self-defense purposes only. However, due to budget constraints, training of Su-34 crews on the use of R-27 and R-77 were halted and deemed unnecessary to save on limited supply AAM’s. Based on the current operation of VKS Su-34 systems during the first 100 days of operation in Ukraine, the VKS only uses FAB-500M-62 ‘dumb’ bombs due to the depletion of more advanced munitions.
The main lesson to be learnt from the Russian VKS in Ukraine is that it has proved itself lacking in any modern multi-role aerial combat capability, especially in terms of availability of modern munitions and appropriate training of air crews. In fact, the Russians clearly proved their inability to effectively launch and maintain a multi-functional strategic air campaign for the simple reason that they have never done it before compared to the scale usually executed by NATO air forces. For this reason, the Russian VKS fails to operate as an integrated airborne system with mutually supporting capabilities which include:
Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C);
In-flight refueling (IFR);
Combat Air Patrol (CAP);
Close Air Support/SEAD;
Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR); and
Ground-based Air Defense Systems (GADS).
Looking at Russian air operations over Ukraine, missions are straightforward bombing runs with mainly unguided munitions based on specific mission criteria with the purpose of bombing poorly verified targets, and then returning back to base without being shot down. There are no form of flexibility or commander initiative, and TTP’s are rigid in accordance with the [outdated] air doctrine which does not allow for rapid review and adaptation. Furthermore, we also think that most Russian export customers already know the long list of limitations of their overestimated Russian systems, but nobody is willing to admit to it in fear of exposing its deficient capabilities to the public and its immediate adversaries, to include associated procurement fraud (at the political level) usually associated with Russian arms sales (which may indicate one of the unspoken reasons why the majority ex-Soviet Eastern European nations gladly donated outdated Russian hardware to Ukraine in exchange for more advanced NATO systems as an exit strategy while gaining favorable public support for such ‘kind’ actions towards Ukraine).
What the PSU has learnt from the current conflict with Russia is the importance of having a multi-layered modern air defense capability which it is still struggling to obtain from the West who fears providing the required modern systems to avoid any possibility of such technology (which includes older generation systems), falling into the hands of the Russians, Iran or the PRC. Six months into the war, and NATO support to Ukraine was still limited to mainly MANPADs, with the possibility of earlier generation MIM-104 Patriots to be provided by the US for the air defense role. However, the systems which contributed most to Ukraine not being subjected to Aerial Incapacity is its investment in various models of UAV’s, especially the Bayraktar TB-2 for effective ground-attack missions behind enemy frontlines. The addition of US loitering munitions also relieved much of the CAS deficiency by the PSU in support of ground forces, especially taking into consideration the contested airspace limiting the use of Sukhoi Su-25 CAS aircraft by both sides to support their respective ground forces effectively. Su-25 CAS operations are on the increase (along with increased losses), but current operations have proven little effectiveness in terms of accuracy and efficiency of operations. Both the PSU and VKS have illustrated lacking skills in effectively operating in contested airspace and ensuring that TTP’s are developed to improve combat effectiveness and efficiency. Both these air forces are not the first to operate under similar contested conditions, but none of them are applying any of the TTP’s that were developed and mastered by both the Israeli’s and South Africans under similar conditions in the past with great operational success. Finally, the most critical lesson to be learnt from the current Russo-Ukraine conflict in terms of aerial warfare is that an effective air defense capability should include the means of engaging low-radar cross-section MALE (medium-altitude, long endurance) UAV’s to achieve air supremacy as based on the proven effectiveness of the Bayraktar TB-2 system from the perspective of having to counter the use of such systems by opposing forces. Russian Forces have increased its UAV capabilities through large scale acquisitions from Iran, which further necessitates the importance of capable ground air defense systems such as the MIM-104 Patriot.
Solving the Air Dominance Stalemate in Ukraine:
The major obstacle limiting the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU) from achieving air dominance is exactly the same problem limiting the Russian Air Force (VKS) from achieving air dominance, namely, obsolete equipment designed to operate along obsolete combat doctrines. In other words, the VKS and PSU are both in a stalemate situation for the simple reason that both air forces are similar trained to operate similar equipment following similar [outdated Soviet] doctrines. The only option to break this stalemate is for Ukraine to benefit from Western equipment in the form of more advanced aircraft along with more capable ground based air defense systems. Initially, at the start of the 2022 Russian campaign in Ukraine, the US was hesitant to provide more advanced military systems such as F-16 multi-role fighter to the Ukraine Air Force in fear of losing such technology to the Russians and its allies (Iran, PRC). However, six months into the current campaign, Ukraine has proven itself reliable in taking care of Western hardware, and therefore they are considered more worthy to be provided with retired USAF F-16 multi-role fighters.
F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcon variant in service with the air force of the UAE.
Even though these systems are retired USAF, it is by no means obsolete in terms of capabilities which further proves the fact that older Western military hardware are still superior in capabilities compared to modern Russian systems. Looking at what Ukraine requires to achieve air dominance, the F-16 is a highly capable fighter in service with eleven NATO air forces. It is also the fighter system most suitable to meet immediate Ukraine Air Force requirements for around 80 to 100 units to replace its current ex-Soviet era aircraft fleet. That said, Ukraine critically requires fighter aircraft capable of the following missions to achieve a state of air dominance over Russian occupied territories:
Air-to-Air / Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM)
Close Air Support (CAS)
Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) / Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD).
Based on these requirements, the most critical requirement is SEAD/DEAD (although all the listed capabilities are interconnected) and specifically systems capable of operating the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) variants, the primary USAF multi-mode air-to-surface anti-radiation missile system specifically designed to neutralize ground-based air defense radar systems.
AGM-88 air-to-surface HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) mounted on a F-16. Since August 2022, the US has assisted Ukraine with the supply and integration of this system to be fired from Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29 aircraft. Precise technical details of how the system was integrated in such a short period of time is unknown, although this integration does not enable full missile capabilities as available when operated from the F-16.
However, Ukraine cannot afford to induct different aircraft systems to fulfill each capability requirement, and therefore the only current available system is the F-16 C/D Block 52 SEAD multi-role fighter variant (minimum baseline specifications) and above. The SAAB JAS-39 Gripen does offer suitably comparable capabilities, but not at the scale of already available and proven platforms and munitions as offered by the F-16. This is one of the most critical factors, also most commonly overlooked by military planners during arms procurements, namely, rapid fleet expansion and replacement of aircraft losses, and rapid resupply of spent munitions. The F-16 is presently the only modern aircraft system in the world offering rapid supply capability due to the large numbers produced during the system’s production lifetime numbering around 3,000 units to date in various block variants, with industrial capacity to manufacture even more if required. This is especially applicable in Africa where air forces are hesitant to purchase US systems subject to various US Government controls during its foreseen service lifetime, hence the reason why African nations foolishly choose to procure lesser capable systems from both Russia and the PRC which are perceived ‘less restrictive’ in terms of government controls, but in turn more vulnerable to quality issues, systems obsolescence, and guaranteed service life technical support. South Africa made this mistake during the acquisition of the SAAB JAS-39 C/D Gripen which compares in performance capability to the F-16, but at the cost of its total JAS-39 C/D Gripen fleet having been grounded for more than a year since August 2021.
Venn Diagram illustrating current in-service NATO fighters and how they compare in terms of multi-role missions (ACM, CAS, SEAD) capabilities based on immediate Ukrainian Air Force needs for sufficient availability of full mission ready (FMC) platforms and multi-mission specific munitions within a time constrained procurement period. The main deciding factor in determining the suitability of the F-16 system as the most versatile option to meet current Ukrainian Air Force requirements within the shortest period of time, is the proven maturity of the AGM-88 HARM multi-mode air-to-surface anti-radiation missile system as integrated onto the F-16. As European systems, the Eurofighter, Rafale, and JAS-39 Gripen offers alternative SEAD capabilities, but none of these systems offer feasible availability of required quantities comparable to what the USAF and NATO Europe (existing F-16 operators) already have available in stock to enable rapid supply and resupply without the need for additional production. Procurement process and costs are also the most simplified in terms of the US lend-lease system.
Looking at current Ukrainian Air Force requirements, if the US Congress approves the sale/lend-lease of ex-USAF F-16 systems to the Ukraine, the first major obstacle will be training of current Ukrainian Air Force pilots qualified on either the Sukhoi Su-27 or Mikoyan Mig-29 to convert onto the F-16 system. This, however, cannot be accomplished in only a matter of a few weeks. This has nothing to do with the skills level of Ukrainian Air Force pilots (who have proven themselves highly competent facing the better equipped Russian Air Force), but rather relates to the vast differences in complexity and advancement between the mission systems of NATO vs Russian platforms. However, to understand this in greater detail, we need to understand the NATO doctrine relevant to the sustainable operation of the F-16 system in terms of:
Base Infrastructure and Protection:
Before actual flight operations can commence using the F-16 system, suitable infrastructure at air bases need to be developed to support all components of the F-16 as a system. In general, the F-16 system consists of the following elements, namely:
Hardware and Munitions,
Support Equipment and Facilities,
Training and Training Equipment,
Tactical Application Doctrine.
One of the critical hardware requirements include suitable ground air defense systems such as the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, or at least the shorter range [US version] NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) which fires the AIM-120 AMRAAM, to counter Russian air attacks by whatever means. The current S-300 system in service with the Ukrainian armed forces does not compare in capabilities to what is offered by the Patriot system in terms of capabilities. As a minimum, each air base should be equipped with at least a full compliment Air Defense Battery, which includes PAC-2/GEM+ missiles to counter enemy aircraft threats, and PAC-3 and PAC-3 MSE missiles to counter both cruise- and ballistic missiles. Added capability should include efficient countering of enemy UAV’s and loitering munitions as well, why suitable short- to medium range ground-based air defense systems are required. Therefore, before the arrival of any F-16’s in Ukrainian service, Ukrainian forces need to be trained to operate the MIM-104 Patriot system effectively over a minimum period of 30 weeks.
To convert qualified and experienced Ukrainian Air Force pilots onto the F-16 system, the following basic training would have to be completed as a minimum qualification requirement before operational use in Ukraine against Russian forces, namely:
1. Initial Flight Training: The USAF initial flight training course spans over a period of 15 months, and although it would not be necessary for already qualified and experienced Ukrainian Air Force pilots to complete this whole program, they will require some form of bridging training conducted on both the T-6 and T-38 to become accustomed with the US avionics and associated systems/procedures. This would ensure a smoother transition to the next phase of training on the F-16 system.
2. Basic Course (F-16): This is the critical part of the training which spans over 9 months and includes a minimum of 62 flights. This training program cannot be reduced, irrespective of the level of experience the pilots have on other (especially non-NATO) systems. The F-16 is a multi-role fighter, and it is essential that all pilots understand all aspects relevant to the system, including basic air combat maneuvering (ACM) based on the unique flying characteristics of the aircraft before progressing to specialized training programs.
3. SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): This is a specialization course which must be completed by all pilots after qualifying on the basic course. The duration of the SEAD training is 1 month.
Ground Crew Training:
Based on current USAF operating procedures, each F-16 system requires 25 maintainers to provide around 16 hours of maintenance for every 1 hour flight time. This includes ground-crew conducting pre-flight, thru-flight (landing to re-arm and refuel before departing to continue a mission), and post-flight safety checks, as well as armorers. There are also ‘back shop’ maintainers specialized in more specific skill sets which include maintaining or repairing weapons-, guidance-, or propulsion systems. These jobs are essential for continuing air combat operations, and to reduce any damage or losses to equipment caused by avoidable ground operations negligence. The basic qualification period for F-16 technicians is 18 months. But why is ground crew training for the F-16 system longer in duration than the training period for pilots? The answer relates to the complexity of the F-16 as a multi-role fighter system which is designed to be converted in a few hours to meet specific mission profiles. In other words, you cannot just hang bombs and missiles as you like, and then take off without proper intelligence based planning. Munitions requirements are unique for each mission profile based on specific target characteristics, operational environment and threats. For example:
1. In the ground-attack role, if the mission specifies the use of GBU-39B bombs, then BRU-61A bomb racks need to be fitted to the platform.
BRU-61A bomb rack with GBU-39B bombs
To attach two JSOW or GBU-38 JDAM bombs to a pylon, a BRU-57A bomb rack needs to be fitted. The F-16 multi-mission computer communicates with the racks and rails, which in turn communicates with the weapon systems mounted.
BRU-57A bomb rack with GBU-38 500 lbs JDAM
2. In the Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) role (the modern term referring to air-to-air combat), the underwing LAU-129A missile rail launcher is mounted to fire the AIM-9X Sidewinder on all blocks F-16C/D variants. However, if the AIM-120D AMRAAM is specified for the mission, the LAU-129A rail launcher is mounted both underwing and on the wingtip.
LAU-129A missile rail launcher, the modernized replacement of the 16S210 rail launcher system, as mounted on the wingtip and underwing alongside an ALE-50 Towed Decoy System
Alternatively, the 16S210 rail launcher is fitted to allow older variant AIM-9 Sidewinder AAM's to be mounted on the wingtip or underwing.
Basic SEAD/DEAD Mission Profile:
The F-16 system is a highly complex combination of dozens of weapons systems and sensors which requires both the pilots and ground crew to be fully capable on the correct application and operation of all these systems to benefit from all the systems capabilities, as well as to avoid negligent damage to any systems as a result of improper use. The SEAD missions are testimony to the complexity of these systems, why it is a separate course from the basic F-16 course. For a SEAD mission, two F-16 aircraft will be loaded out with:
2x AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles
2x AIM-120D AMRAAM air-to-air missiles
2x AGM-88E AARGM air-to-surface anti-radiation missiles
1x AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod
1x AN/ASQ-213 HTS to locate radar guided systems
1x AN/ALQ-184(V)9, which combines an ALQ-184 ECM pod with an AN/ALE-50 towed decoy system
2x External fuel tanks, or additional bombs or missiles.
AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod on a F-16
The two SEAD mission aircraft will then fly along an enemy's air defense zone and try to incite enemy air-defense sites to target them with its radars. Once the AN/ASQ-213 detects an active enemy radar, the pilots will fire an AGM-88E AARGM which will autonomously attack and destroy the enemy radar. The pilots will then use the AN/ALQ-184(V)9 to protect their aircraft from enemy surface-to-air missiles fired at them. If enemy fighters approach, the F-16’s are equipped with AIM-120D AMRAAM to attack the enemy aircraft. With their AN/AAQ-33 Sniper pods, the aircraft can also fly over the enemy air-defense site to confirm whether the AGM-88E AARGM strike was successful. If the F-16 is equipped with GBU-39B/B bombs, it can be used in combination with the Sniper pod's laser targeting system to strike the remaining neutralized, but not destroyed, missile launchers and command/support vehicles of the enemy air-defense battery. SEAD missions are usually performed with the assistance of AEW&C in the air to extend situational awareness.
USAF South Carolina ANG, 169th Fighter Wing, F-16C/D Block 52 SEAD
The SEAD mission is highly complex, and it is essential that the Ukrainian Air Force first conducts SEAD missions before commencing with ground-strike/CAS missions, and for that to happen, air bases require sufficient ground-based air defenses. There are various options to 'improvise' absent capabilities which would work as temporary measures during the short term, but not sustainable in the long-run. This is the only means of achieving gradual air dominance over the Russians, and the minimum training period would be 10 months to deploy a F-16 qualified first batch of Ukrainian Air Force pilots, whereafter the next training batch can commence their conversion training. In addition to these basic F-16 requirements, the Ukrainian Air Force will eventually require access to aerial tankers and AEW&C aircraft to extend the F-16 capabilities potential by extending the sensors range well within both Russia and Belarus. Ground based radar is vulnerable to enemy cruise missile strikes and the F-16C/D AN/APG-68(V)9 radar has a range of 300 km with an arc of 120°, while the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C radar has a range of 600 km and an arc of 360°. Four E-7A Wedgetail systems enable 24/7 airspace coverage. To interdict enemy fighters approaching Ukrainian territory and to protect the AEW&C systems, F-16’s need to be in the air 24/7 which requires external fuel tanks (which reduces speed and weapons load-out), or in-flight refueling by at least four KC-46 Pegasus tankers. All these additional systems and capabilities require training to qualify crews in its effective application.
However, the only solution to drastically reduce the initial training requirements obstacle and enable rapid delivery of the F-16 fighter systems is to recruit contractor pilots and ground crews already qualified and experienced on the relevant systems and procedures, after approval and vetting via the US Department of Defense. There are an abundance of both US and NATO Europe personnel sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause who are willing and available (at the right price), to fill the gap over a 5 years transition period to enable smooth induction of all systems, with gradual transitioning to Ukrainian crews as they become qualified on the more advanced US systems.
Bridging the SEAD Capability Gap:
Knowing the complexities involved with the overall induction of the anticipated F-16 system to achieve the Phase 3: Proven milestone (Read: Business Unusual: The Private Defense Industry) that enables operational deployment (as also applicable to any other comparative systems if not the F-16), the Ukrainian Air Force has taken the first step, with the technical assistance of the United States, to retrofit the AGM-88 HARM onto Ukrainian Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29, Sukhoi Su-25, and Sukhoi Su-27 aircraft by improvised means (the precise technical means not to be discussed). However, one of the major capabilities of this missile system in addition to its precise destructive capabilities, is it sensors. The AGM-88 HARM is a multi-mode system, and even the older generation AGM-88 B/C-1/D variants (to which Ukraine is beneficiary) operate three different modes, namely:
1. Self-Protect (SP)/Launch Off RWR (LOR): Short- to medium range mode of operation for USAF F-16 C/D SEAD equipped with the AN/ASQ-213 HTS R7 sensor system to detect, locate, analyze, and identify sources of radio frequency emission within 360 degrees. In this mode, the more powerful RWR sensors on the delivery platform collects the target data required for the missile's application. Once a target is confirmed, the pilot transmits the data to the LAU-118/A missile launcher as mechanical and electrical interface with the AGM-88 missile. This mode is only compatible with US sensors installed on the F-16 C/D SEAD, and US Navy EA-18G Growler, but can be integrated on other US common systems such as the F-15C, F-15E, and F/A-18C which do not have the powerful sensor systems found on the SEAD dedicated F-16 C/D and EA-18G, using less accurate target data from the less powerful radar warning receivers (RWR). In SP mode, the launch platform should be equipped with advanced ECM and self-protection measures, why the USAF and USN only uses the F-16 C/D SEAD (ALQ-184 ECM pod with an AN/ALE-50 towed decoy system) and EA-18G Growlers (3x AN/ALQ-99F/V jamming pods) as dedicated SEAD platforms due to their mission specific ECM and self-protection systems.
2. Target of Opportunity (TOO)/HARM as Sensor (HAS)/Direct Attack (DA): An alternative higher risk Lock-On-Before-Launch (LOBL) mode using the AGM-88 HARM's internal, but less powerful, passive radar homing seeker that scans for and detects radio frequency emissions at much shorter ranges compared to SP mode using more powerful aircraft sensors input. Once a missile detects a possible target, it transmits the data to the aircraft's launch interface computer, and the pilot then decides whether the target is a threat. If the pilot decides to engage the target, missile launch is activated, and the AGM-88 missile engages the target autonomously without further pilot input. In TOO mode, the launch aircraft should be equipped with advanced ECM (jamming) and self-protection systems as found on the F-16 C/D SEAD and EA-18G Growler for the reason that aircraft survivability will be at high risk flying high and deep into enemy air defense zones as required to effectively detect and engage suitable targets.
3. Pre-Briefed (PB)/Pre-Emptive (PE)/Position Known (POS): The lowest risk Lock-On-After-Launch (LOAL) mode used for stand-off maximum range attacks on emitters of a known type and location, within several degrees of the missile boresight. This is the most basic mode in which the AGM-88 HARM is pre-programmed on the ground with precise target data based on confirmed intelligence relayed from forward deployed observation elements (air or ground - UAV, FAC, Special Forces, etc). The delivery platform purpose is only to deliver the missile closer to the target within a range of around 150 km at maximum speed and highest [safe] altitude out of range of enemy air defenses. The AGM-88 will autonomously fly to the target coordinates once launched, and when within lock-on range, the missile will scan, detect, lock-on and engage the target without external control inputs. A sub-mode of PB/PE/POS is Equations-Of-Motion (EOM) mode which allows more precise selection of emitters at maximum range in a high density environment. The EOM mode is more precise than the PB mode in terms of target selection, and can engage off-axis, but requiring more precise target data.
This diagram illustrates that best stand-off range performance is achieved in EOM mode by means of a range-finding targeting receiver or Emitter Locating System (ELS). In this mode the HARM is typically 'tossed' by the launch aircraft and then flies on inertial guidance until the trip point where homing commences.
The AGM-88B and AGM-88C-1 uses INS (Inertial Navigation System) to steer the missile to the general target area where it then scans for targets to engage based on pre-programmed data metrics applicable to known enemy radio emission signatures. The AGM-88D has additional GPS guidance which enables it to engage precise target locations without active radio emissions (such as radar systems that are switched off, but positively identified by forward observation elements). The AGM-88C-1 and AGM-88D also has 'home-on-jam' functionality which forces the enemy to switch off electronic warfare systems to avoid being targeted. However, looking at what the US supplied to Ukraine (in the form of older AGM-88B/C-1/D variants), we know based on Russian open source information portraying AGM-88 missile fragments, that Ukraine is equipped with the AGM-88D variant. Therefore, we can derive that Ukraine can operate the AGM-88 HARM in both Pre-Briefed (PB) and Target of Opportunity (TOO) modes, the latter incorporating improvised means of allowing pilot control interface with the missile sensors from the cockpit (without integration with any of the incompatible aircraft sensors on the Su-25, Su-27, and Mig-29).
In [improvised] Target of Opportunity (TOO) mode, the Ukrainian air force platforms are thus enabled with a limited ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability derived from the AGM-88D built-in sensors to enable very basic SEAD mission capabilities by allowing the Ukrainian Air Force a means to map out the precise radiation emittance signatures of enemy ground deployments which include radar modules, radar jammers, satellite communications nodes, anti-aircraft batteries, or any hardware that emits some form of radiation during its use, including certain communications equipment. The impact of this capability is that the moment any of these equipment are in operation, Ukrainian Air Force aircraft equipped with the AGM-88 HARM will immediately locate the positions of such equipment on the ground, leaving them with the options to engage with the AGM-88 HARM, or to pass the target data onwards for engagement by other means. The AGM-88 HARM is designed as an anti-radiation missile (as opposed to thermal or IR signature tracking), and therefore no means of existing thermal or IR camouflage can hide a target. The Russians are very much aware of this capability, which has forced them to drastically reduce operation of any radiation emitting hardware to the absolute minimum (only when target sighting is confirmed allowing rapid engagement), and when such equipment is operated it needs to be redeployed as soon as possible away from the transmitting position to an alternative fighting position (which takes time), to avoid destruction by Ukrainian forces. This alone has drastically reduced Russian capabilities in its respective AO's to the benefit of the Ukrainian Air Force. This added capability, along with the coordinated use of the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) / GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System), has pushed Russian air defenses (BUK/S-300/S-400) back at least 100 km from the frontlines (outside GMLRS range), which effectively increases the radar horizon over the frontline by an additional 1200 ft, allowing the Ukrainian forces additional sanctuary for the use of its armed Bayraktar TB2 UAV sensors suite to target Russian tube and rocket artillery from a safe 100 km range, targets which cannot be identified using the AGM-88 HARM. These capabilities combined restricts Russian radio and digital communications between command nodes within occupied Ukrainian territories, further reducing the effectiveness of Russian C4IR capabilities during critical windows. This is but only a small part of setting the conditions for victory prior to any major counter offensive to force Russian forces out of occupied Ukrainian territory.
What about Russian SEAD capabilities?
The simple answer to this question is that Russia does not have suitable SEAD capabilities. To be capable of SEAD, an air force requires survivable platforms with precision engagement and ISR capabilities (the most basic form resembling such capabilities being the USAF F-16 Block 52 SEAD). In addition to these basic requirements, pilots require expensive realistic training based on a relevant doctrine and TTP's, something the Russian Air Force fails to do to save costs, along with the fact that the VKS fighting doctrine is outdated due to little institutional evolution since the 1980's style of Soviet warfare. In fact, it is Russia's inability to conduct SEAD missions why the VKS has ceased supporting Russian ground forces effectively from August 2022. Russian military carelessness (probably as an indicator of incompetence), is also not helping their ambitions to eventually develop SEAD capabilities. An example of such carelessness is the failure by Russian forces to recover the wreckage of a Su-30SM (RF-81773) which was shot down by Ukrainian forces, but came down in Russian controlled territory. This specific Sukhoi-30 was equipped with a nearly undamaged SAP-518SM 'Regata' jamming pod, which was then recovered and provided to US military intelligence for evaluation when the territory was recaptured by Ukrainian forces during its counter-offensive against Russian occupation.
However, the same capability challenges apply to basically all air forces, including the PLAAF, who established their core air force doctrines based on old Soviet air doctrine and TTP's, and primarily equipped with Russian hardware. The reality facing Russia is that recently decommissioned US hardware (considered obsolete by US military standards) being kept in reserve storage and provided to NATO partner nations via FMA/FMS (also applying to Ukraine), currently outperforms all so-called 'modern' equipment available in current Russian inventory, and the Russians have no means of effectively countering these capabilities. It has attempted procuring 'advanced' systems from both Iran and North Korea to replace battlefield losses, but none of that equipment has proven to be of any value to improving the current rapidly deteriorating Russian situation.
Looking at Africa, we find a whole continent with nations operating obsolete fighting doctrines, and equipped with unsuitable equipment to maintain any form of combat readiness for what is already the current means of warfare.
Based on the abundance of lessons learnt from the current Russo-Ukraine War, one of the major highlights of this ongoing conflict is the importance of Air Force design, and how complex a matter it is to maintain an Air Force to remain relevant into the future. The one major factor we need to understand is that no ‘one solution for all’ exists in terms of acquiring relevant air domination capabilities, but looking at current availability of solutions, the F-16 family is by far the most suitable system compared to anything else in its class. Yes, the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen does compare on par with much of the more modern F-16 variants, but the main deciding factors that count against the very capable JAS-39 Gripen systems are:
1. An ideal air domination force design would include the ‘high-low’ concept which simply implies that (especially relevant to large land mass territories), a combination of larger long-range fighter systems supported by smaller short-range fighters to enable greater mission effectiveness, flexibility, and efficiencies. To enable effective high-low capabilities integration, much of the systems should have commonality in terms of logistics, armaments, training, ground support procedures and capabilities. In terms of the high-low concept, the F-16 system (low) would be complimented by the much more capable F-15 system (high) and vice versa, and pilot progression from the F-16 to F-15 would require minimal conversion effort. The SAAB JAS-39 Gripen as a ‘low’ end system (light weight, short range, single-engine), offers no integration with any other ‘high’ end systems which would necessitate the integration of systems from a third-party nation (such as the Dassault Rafale or Eurofighter), requiring higher capitalization for the development of incompatible parallel support infrastructure to maintain a totally different platform system and associated unique design requirements, further complicating already complex ground support requirements, technical support and maintenance, systems integration and commonality, armaments compatibility, logistics, and periodic upgrades in terms of systems integration. Looking at the current Ukrainian Air Force design, it already has a 'high-low' capability in the form of the Mig-29 and Su-27, but it lacks the technological advantage over more modern Russian platforms which has greatly improved since the US authorized the [improvised] integration of the AGM-88 HARM system (one of the primary combat systems of the F-16), to establish a basic SEAD capability. Taking this into consideration, along with the fact that the Ukrainians have adopted much of the USAF fighting TTP's where possible, the air domination campaign is slowly starting to work in Ukraine's favor, and therefore an expedited F-16 system induction is more realistic compared to any other non-US system in its class. For smaller air forces in Africa, an alternative option to acquiring a suitable 'high-low' capability would be to adopt the F-16 as the 'high' capability in conjunction with the South-Korean KAI FA-50 which was designed with US combat systems commonality in mind (meaning: it can be equipped with the same armaments used on the F-16), why it is at present the most suitable foreign designed light fighter to compliment the F-16 as a primary multi-role fighter to enable the 'low' capability concept.
2. The F-16 system is superior to the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen in terms of availability of armaments and associated combat systems, especially in terms of guaranteed continuation of research and development of such armaments for improvement over lifetime due to the extent and scale of current customer distribution and associated multi-user R&D funding. There is no denying that the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen offers comparative systems to what is available (and operationally certified) for the F-16 variants, but looking at quantity and rapid availability of already manufactured stockpiles of armaments available at a few hours’ notice, nothing developed for the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen compares in numbers of availability as offered by the F-16 systems. The same applies to the platforms itself, since more than 10x as many F-16 platforms have been built compared to the JAS-39 Gripen. The F-16 has evolved into a platform that can be modernized to a basically new fighter system equipped with the most up-to-date hardware, whereas the JAS-39 Gripen still has too small a production run to equal such extension of service at the economies of scale offered by the F-16. This factor is further differentiated by the fact that the F-16 system is manufactured in various partner countries, and technical support over lifetime can originate from various sources, not just a single source as in the case of SAAB during times of need (such as the Russo-Ukraine war, referring to the current Ukrainian Air Force challenges in acquiring suitable armaments and technical support for obsolete equipment also in service with its opposing forces Russia).
Lockheed Martin F-16V Block 70/72 Viper. The newest variant available in the extensive range F-16 range of multi-role 4th Generation Plus fighters.
Now, we do understand that the majority low-end users (such as African air forces), do not have the resources to develop a high-low fighter capability due to cost implications, why the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen is considered an alternative solution to the F-16. However, looking at the lessons learnt from the Russo-Ukraine war, the major advantage of choosing the F-16 system as a primary multi-role fighter capability allows its users access to vastly superior resources offered by its manufacturer(s), as well as the technical- and operational knowledge base offered by its current [credible and competent] users. Furthermore, a major contributing factor in favor of the F-16 compared to the JAS-39 Gripen is that with major US defense purchases a beneficiary country also gains much political protection from the US government, especially during times of distress (terms and conditions apply, specific references to Pakistan and Venezuela), something that is not available from the Swedish government who claims to promote pacifist foreign policies which contradicts the whole idea of being an arms producing nation. This factor probably influenced the decision by the Czech Republic to formally request approval from the US to purchase F-35's to replace the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen C/D fleet (14 units) it currently leases from SAAB when the 17 year lease agreement expires by 2027. What also counts against SAAB, is its traditional sales partnership with BAE Systems who facilitated the leases to the Czech Republic, and the sale of JAS-39 Gripen to Hungary, but later implicated in allegations of corruption involving bribing of politicians in both countries to sway procurement decisions in favor of the JAS-39, whereas the air forces of both countries preferred procuring F-16's from the US for functionality reasons. Ironically, BAE Systems was also implicated in allegations of corruption during South Africa's procurement of its JAS-39 C/D fleet.
Also, another factor we need to understand about the arms industry is that defense products are perceived only as good as the level of competency of its existing users. What this means is that a system can be developed with advanced specifications on paper, but if the end-users of such systems do not know how to use such systems properly, and how to extract maximum value from its achievable potential, the system will be perceived by other prospective customers based on its existing performance with lesser capable end-users without taking end-user competence into consideration. However, the most important advantage offered by the F-16 is its integration with allied air forces (such as the USAF and other NATO users), to enable a joint high-low capability when required. This can only be achieved when there is commonality in training, armaments, and relevant support systems. South Africa is currently an example of a nation who initially planned on developing a high-low fighter capability during the 1990's, but then decided to procure the SAAB JAS-39 C/D system instead to ‘enable cost savings’ (although government political agenda was focussed on reducing its military capability for various reasons not disclosed to the military planners at the time). Unfortunately, the current SAAF fleet of JAS-39 C/D Gripen aircraft have been grounded for more than a year (since August 2021), and all platforms are already outdated due to the lack of system upgrades in line with the current OEM baseline version, along with SAAF unique design requirements to enable systems integration with other [now obsolete] non-SAAB systems also requiring mid-life upgrades by OEM's who have lost its capabilities to continue its ongoing support to the SAAF. What was initially sold as ‘a good idea’ two decades ago, has become a major serviceability obstacle, and the SAAF would have been in a much better situation if the South African political system enabled the procurement of the F-16 instead (which was offered to the SAAF during the initial procurement tender phase but declined). To complicate the SAAF situation even further, the Royal Air Force found a design fault on the Safran manufactured low pressure compression fan in the Rolls-Royce/Safran Adour 951 powerplant during mid-2022, causing for the immediate grounding of the majority BAE Systems Hawk T. Mk2 LIFTs which operate the same powerplants installed in the SAAF Hawk 120 LIFTs being used as stop-gap for combat air patrol while the SAAB JAS-39 C/D fleet is grounded. According to RAF estimates, Safran (OEM of the relevant component), cannot replace the defective engine components before 2025 due to global titanium shortages, and since this defect affects the whole global fleet of BAE Hawks based on the Hawk 100 platform, the SAAF will most probably be forced to ground its BAE Systems Hawk 120 LIFT fleet soon (subject to number of engine hours remaining within the OEM specified amended safe operating parameters based on RAF user experience) to benefit from eventual OEM warranty claims without being penalized. If the SAAF BAE Systems Hawk 120 LIFT's are grounded, the SAAF will have no serviceable fighter aircraft available. The only 'saving grace' in favor of the SAAF, is its depleted budget which has already to an effect drastically reduced flight hours, with only a small portion of its aircraft being utilized on rotation. This solution does work to retain pilot currency (especially with the current pilot shortages in the SAAF), but it is not ideal for effective operational readiness. This scenario again highlights the importance of maintaining a balanced, multi-platforms solution to mitigate the risks of total capabilities lost (as in the case of the South African Air Force), especially in future with increased supply chain shortages and availability restrictions on critical materials and scarce resources as global relations deteriorate. Another major lesson to be learnt from this situation is the risks involved with procuring new, untested and unproven systems for primary hardware. The Rolls-Royce/Safran Adour 951 was designed for the newer generation BAE Hawk 100 variants, for which the SAAF was a launch customer with its Hawk 120 procurement.
Looking at the rest of Africa, a major stumbling block for procurement of the F-16 system is the common misconception amongst smaller air forces that the F-16 has an exceptionally high procurement cost compared to similar systems. However, cost inflation during initial procurement usually relates to the procurement of the support systems required to maintain the aircraft systems, training of air crews and ground crews, as well as weapon systems in sufficient quantities to meet national defense strategy requirements over an end-user determined service lifetime. As applicable to any new systems, any procurement of systems less than 48 units would be considered costly compared to bulk purchases of a fleet exceeding 48 units since most of the required support equipment are already accounted for. It is for this reason why per unit cost calculations usually come to around US$ 146 million per unit for the F-16V Block 70/72 (19 units batch order: Bahrain) with small batch initial procurements, compared to large batch initial procurements of around US$ 65 million per unit (90 units batch order: Taiwan). However, what makes the F-16V Block 70/72 unique is that it has become beneficiary of considerable technology transfer derived from the F-35 Lightning II to extend its service relevance well into the future to eventually be replaced by the F-35 with simpler transitioning onto type.
And finally, how does the 50 year old design F-16 compare to the JF-17 Thunder (Read: JF-17 Thunder: Is it good enough for Africa)? In our opinion, the most recent variant of the F-16 outperforms the JF-17 Thunder Block III in terms of capabilities, reliability, armaments and overall missions flexibility by far. To support this point from a PAF perspective, the only reason why the PAF adopted the JF-17 Thunder is because it was restricted from acquiring more modern F-16 variants to compliment its existing F-16 fleet (the most modern variants being Block 52 Plus baseline). The value offered by the F-16 system is its mass scale of global adoption and resulting extent of industrialization and continued R&D, why it will still remain a capable 4th Generation Plus frontline fighter for a few decades to come, especially as a preferred system to transition pilots onto more advanced 5th Generation fighters such as the F-35 Lightning II. However, looking at the PAF experience, compared to the poor state of serviceability situation in the SAAF (and various other comparable air forces), having a domestic fighter aircraft capability in the form of the JF-17 Thunder alongside the more superior F-16 has its advantages if one system is grounded for unforeseen reasons. In the end, a reduced capability fighter that flies is of much greater value than an advanced fighter that is grounded.
Since the Ukrainian Air Force adopted a limited SEAD capability with technical guidance from the US (mainly Raytheon), the consequent overall military successes achieved by Ukraine while forcing the Russian occupiers out of Ukrainian territories during its September 2022 launched counter-offensive has gained much international attention which necessitates an update to clear up some misconceptions and unknowns based on technical insights provided by our colleagues in the PSU regarding the AGM-88 HARM integration on ex-Soviet era hardware in Ukrainian service:
1. The specific AGM-88 HARM variants provided to Ukraine by the US are units equipped with Block II software versions (B-variants and later) instead of the improved Block III software. The main reason for this decision by the US is to mitigate the risks of any AGM-88 HARM technology finding its way to opposing forces (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran) if captured. From a NATO perspective, the 'read only' Block II software versions are considered obsolete and of limited risk to NATO compared to the more advanced Block III software versions. However, what makes the AGM-88 HARM unique is that even though its a 1980's technology, it is still a reprogrammable system (through software version and target library updates), which still allows for constant upgrading and modification to extend its service life as battlefield radiation signatures evolve, why these older variant missiles still remain relevant and superior in capability compared to modern systems fielded by opposing forces. Comparative [opposing forces] systems from the same era do not have this advantage of being upgraded over time as a normal maintenance functionality.
2. Although the AGM-88 HARM has been integrated on various PSU platforms to include Mikoyan Mig-29, Sukhoi Su-25, and Sukhoi Su-27 aircraft, the Mig-29 serves as the primary 'SEAD' platform in the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU). The Mig-29 systems in Ukrainian service falls into two categories, namely, modernized (Ukrainian baseline specifications), and unmodernized (Soviet baseline specifications). Taking into consideration that SEAD missions, as a result of its mission complexity and TTP's, is also extremely high risk in terms of irreplaceable equipment losses. Furthermore, it should be understood that the Mig-29 system was designed for ACM missions (air-to-air combat), and it is not ideal for ground strike missions since it was never designed to be a multi-role fighter. Therefore, to limit the risk of losing irreplaceable systems, the Ukrainian Air Force has dedicated the modernized Mig-29MU1 variants for the ACM (air-to-air combat) role, with all unmodernized (Soviet baseline specifications) Mig-29S (Product 9.13) systems dedicated to SEAD missions equipped with the AGM-88 HARM mainly due to their obsolescence in terms of effective air defense capability and survivability against more modern Russian equipment. The minor advantage offered by the Mig-29S vs the Mig-29MU1 is that the older unmodernized Mig-29S has a limited ground attack capability as a result of its original baseline specifications (Product 9.13).
3. The AGM-88 HARM was integrated onto the older Mig-29S (Product 9.13) by means of an improvised method of integration with the older (and technically simpler to manipulate) fire control system which identifies the AGM-88 HARM as a R-27EP (also referred to as the R-27PE by current users, with NATO codename AA-10F) for which the system was originally designed. The AGM-88 HARM also reflects as the R-27EP ("27ПЭ" in Russian Cyrillics) on the HUD repeater. This was achieved with the assistance of Raytheon by installing an emulator code allowing the Mig-29S fire control system to recognize the AGM-88 HARM as the R-27EP which enables master arming and safety locks to be controlled by the pilot. The older Mig-29S fire control system also has a launch authorization override function which allows the pilot to fire the 'R-27' outside of weapon system computed solution, which would also apply to the AGM-88 HARM while the fire control system thinks its a R-27, which is produced by both Russia and Ukraine under a shared USSR license. The advantage Ukraine has with this system is that they are capable of coding all the systems related to the R-27 range of missiles, whereas the specific R-27EP variant was the dedicated passive anti-radiation missile (similar in purpose to the AGM-88 HARM) with a range of 70 nm (110 km). Therefore, just through coding of a simple outdated fire control system, the AGM-88 HARM can be launched using the original equipment on the Mig-29S. However, feeding sensors data from the outdated Mig-29S [Beryoza] RWR systems to the AGM-88 HARM is not yet possible due to technological incompatibilities, why the current preferred mode of operation for the AGM-88 HARM is 'Pre-Briefed (PB)' which depends on accurate and time sensitive information from the front (based on target specific data provided by Special Forces on long-range reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines, AEW&C, MALE UAV, satellite observation, and ELINT), which also helps to reduce pilot workload already strained under low-level flight operations. The 'Pre-Briefed (PB)' mode is also lower risk to the already obsolete [compared to NATO systems] delivery platform which ironically became less obsolete as a result of its new SEAD role utilization. (which in itself is also considered an irreplaceable system in the absence of more capable fighters requested from NATO).
4. An interesting point of note why the AGM-88 HARM integration onto the ex-Soviet platforms in service with the Ukrainian Air Force was quite simple relates back to the original design of the AGM-88 HARM which saw its first service on the USAF F-4G Wild Weasels before integration onto the F-16, where the whole idea and consequent TTP's development for the current USAF F-16 SEAD/DEAD missions started. To save costs (by avoiding major design modifications to an older F-4E airframe already considered obsolete at the time), the AGM-88 HARM was designed as a modular system which implies that the Aircraft Launcher Interface Computer (ALIC) was incorporated into the LAU-118/A launch rail instead of the aircraft airframe. What this basically implies is that the LAU-118/A with ALIC only draws power from the Ukrainian Air Force platform, and the only modifications that were required was for power supply integration (Soviet-to-NATO interface), and physical launch rail attachment modification to Soviet specification underwing hard points.
5. It is possible for the Ukraine Air Force to utilize the AGM-88 HARM in 'Target Of Opportunity (TOO)' mode under strict operational parameters by means of linking an independent (without aircraft avionics integration) display unit in the cockpit which relays target data acquired by the AGM-88 HARM inbuilt sensors to the pilot to initiate manual launch when a target is identified. However, this mode can only be utilized from airspace dominated by Ukrainian forces, on targets located within the AGM-88 HARM's inbuilt sensors range. When missions are planned with AGM-88 HARM systems in 'Target Of Opportunity (TOO)' mode, dedicated SEAD platforms require support from more capable fighters (such as the Sukhoi Su-27 in Ukrainian service) for protection. Additional resources are also required to link with other battlefield systems such as the Bayraktar TB-2 long-range optical sensors and ground based guided rocket artillery on call (M142 HIMARS GMLRS) to support engagement of ground targets to save on the unnecessary use of limited AGM-88 HARM stockpiles. This added burden on already overstretched scarce resources outweighs the benefits gained from operating the AGM-88 HARM in 'Target Of Opportunity (TOO)' mode. The additional challenge for the Ukrainian Air Force when operating the AGM-88 HARM in 'Target Of Opportunity (TOO)' mode is that when a target is identified, the pilot has to initiate a two missile firing sequence (one from each wing) when operating the older Mig-29S due to inherent design limitations causing aerodynamic instability resulting from an asymmetrical underwing load when only a single missile is fired (various Western combat aircraft suffer from the same limitation, not only relevant to ex-Soviet systems). In other words, if only one missile is fired, the Mig-29S is limited to only 15 degrees Angle of Attack (AoA) compared to 24 degrees AoA with symmetrical underwing loads. This Mig-29 design limitation was only corrected in the modernized Mig-29G in [East German] Luftwaffe service during 1993, but not on the Ukrainian Mig-29S. Therefore, in light of limited AGM-88 HARM inventory, the Ukrainian Air Force prefers to maintain efficiency by operating the AGM-88 HARM in 'Pre-Briefed (PB)' mode similar to how the US Navy operated the missile system during Desert Storm from its F/A-18 Hornet. Therefore, in 'Pre-Briefed (PB)' mode, the target data is already programmed into each missile via the ALIC prior to take-off, enabling the pilot to launch both missiles simultaneously from a safe distance from target, but each missile tracking towards its own dedicated (pre-programmed) target. Just an informative note regarding the original Mig-29 two missile firing sequence, standard Soviet Mig-29 load-out was one radar guided R-27, complemented by a second R-27 being IR guided to improve the chances of successful target engagement when assigned to air defense missions.
Standard underwing load layout for the R-27 range of missiles on the Mig-29. The AGM-88 HARM is retrofitted to the Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29S using the same underwing hard points as for the R-27.
Based on the operational successes achieved by Ukraine against Russia since induction of the AGM-88 HARM system, the PLAAF (China) has been paying much attention to the benefits of NATO capabilities against Russian doctrine, the latter having influenced much of the current PLA and PLAAF TTP's (now considered problematic). To solve this problem, the Chinese recruited retired Royal Air Force pilots with specific experience on the Eurofighter Typhoon, Panavia Tornado GR.4, and/or Sepecat Jaguar GR.3A. Recruitment was done via a proxy (Test Flight Academy of South Africa - TFASA), which is an AVIC (Aviation Industry Corporation of China) asset in South Africa responsible for training Chinese commercial- and airline transport pilots, as well as a sales point for AVIC military aviation products to Africa. AVIC is currently responsible for developing the majority advanced military aviation systems for the PLAAF. The main concern with China's recruitment of specifically retired Royal Air Force pilots to train PLAAF pilots, is the current Royal Air Force training, systems knowledge, and TTP's relating to SEAD/DEAD missions (hence the specific platforms experience listed in the original recruitment requirements). These pilots are expected to evaluate, develop TTP's, and provide pilot training to PLAAF pilots assigned to SEAD/DEAD squadrons equipped with the new PL-16B (CM-102) Air-Launched Supersonic Anti-Radiation Missile which is claimed to be capable of targeting current NATO anti-radiation ASM's, to include the AGM-88 HARM. Retired members of the Royal Air Force were chosen by the Chinese due to the UK (as a NATO member) not having any legislation prohibiting such activities, also taking into consideration current political sympathy towards China that exists within the opposition political system countering the current sitting government which is losing public support post-Brexit.
Finally, just to emphasize why the AGM-88 HARM is considered the turning point for Ukraine to achieve air dominance closer to Russian occupied territories is the fact that Russian ground air defense systems have lost at least 80% of its effectiveness, resulting in a drastic decrease in Russian Air Force ability to support its ground forces in the occupied territories, with Russia effectively having nothing to counter the [1980's technology] AGM-88 HARM. However, effective SEAD/DEAD capabilities are not only Air Force dependent, and in fact requires multi-domain capabilities, why both the US Navy and US Army developed their own respective SEAD/DEAD TTP's independent from USAF capabilities. What about Africa (to answer some of the questions we received pertaining this subject)? Not a single military in Africa has anything resembling an effective [overlapping] multi-domain SEAD/DEAD capability comparable to what NATO had during the 1980's (not taking into consideration current advancement during the past 40 years). Even if it was possible to combine the forces of all the African Union member states together, as a collective it would not be able to achieve a state of air dominance in the event of a foreign directed land grab scenario similar to what Russia did in Ukraine, with the effectiveness displayed by the Ukrainian forces since the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion. The reasons? African governments lack the political will to enable the development of specialized military capabilities within its armed forces as a pro-active deterrent due to their inherent fear that a better skilled and equipped military is perceived more difficult to control, which becomes more likely to challenge political rule in the event of poor governance or political abuse.
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