Warplanes: One Fighter-Bomber Terrorizes a Nation


December 10, 2023: In Ukraine the government is seeking a solution to Russian use of a single fighter-bomber carrying a four-ton hypersonic missile. The threat is scarier than it is effective but is causing anxiety among Ukrainian civilians throughout the Ukraine. The primary reason for this anxiety is the inability of the military to shoot down the Russian MiG-31 carrying the missile.

This is a problem that began fourteen years ago when Russian prosecutors were looking for whoever ordered the sale, as government surplus, of four MiG-31 fighters for $5 each. Even though the aircraft were being sold without engines or weapons, they were still worth nearly $4 million each. The sale was authorized by a government agency which disposed of surplus equipment two years earlier. All the prosecutors and their investigators had was paperwork ordering the transfer of the four aircraft to what appears to be a shell corporation. The four MiG-31s are still sitting at the plant where they were manufactured and left in limbo. No one wanted the MiG-31s when the Cold War ended in 1991, and Russia could not afford to equip the MiG-31s with engines and weapons.

That was not the end of this scandal. The paperwork ordering the low cost transfer could not be traced back to anyone. At least not anyone willing to admit they authorized the $5 sales. What the prosecutors did confirm was that corruption in the Russian military and defense industries was still active. During the 1990s that corruption cost the Russian military billions of dollars. These were losses the air force could not afford because that money was desperately needed for maintenance and upgrades for existing aircraft and buying new aircraft.

After about twenty years of these losses and missed opportunities, the Russian air force managed to control the corruption, revive production of a few aircraft and refurbish, upgrade and restore to flight status many existing aircraft that had been unable to fly much or not at all. Among the revived aircraft was the twin-engine, two seat 46-ton MiG-31, which was normally used for air superiority and armed with various types of air-to-air missiles. Some were modified to be high-performance MiG-31K bombers carrying the 650 kg Kh-58US HARM (high speed anti-radiation missile) for destroying ground based radars and blinding air defense systems. The other missile carried was the 4.3 ton Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ballistic missile. This one has a range of 2,000 kilometers and moves at up to three kilometers a second, which is faster than a rifle bullet. All these capabilities are costly and each Kinzhal costs about $10 million.

While the Kinzhal is impressive on paper, when actually used its performance is somewhat less than expected. In practice it is not as fast as advertised. Kinzhals’ purported immunity to air-defense systems was also revealed to be false when an American Patriot air defense missile given to Ukraine intercepted and destroyed one. Russia denied that this happened despite the evidence presented by the Ukrainians. Russia insisted that the debris of the intercepted missile belonged to another type of missile. Ukrainian and Western weapons experts agreed the missile wreckage in Ukraine was that of a Kinzhal.

One of the dozen Russian MiG-31K aircraft continues to patrol Ukrainian skies carrying a Kinzhal. The MiG-31K is equipped for aerial refueling so it can fly higher and faster over Ukraine than any Ukrainian fighter. This is expected to change with the American F-16s Ukraine is receiving in 2024. Ukrainian pilots who have been training in the F-16 seem to believe the Americans fighter would be suitably effective against new Russian fighters like the MiG-31K. We may find out in 2024. During the Cold War there were few battles between Americans and Russian fighters and when they were, American pilots were not flying the F-16s. Often the pilots were Israeli who faced Arab pilots in Russian fighters. Despite their success with F-16s, Israel is retiring its F-16s and replacing them with F-35s.

The following was recently posted in a different article and so constitutes boring padding. Wait a few more months for when you really need to repost something. I’m working on two more articles, how the Biden administration’s giving of $20+ billion to Iran makes a Persian Gulf oil war inevitable within a few years, to the tune $200+/barrel oil for several years afterwards, and “Adjusting Attitudes in Gaza”.

At the end of 2016 Israel retired the last of its 125 F-16A fighters. The first 70 were acquired in 1980 and 1981 and included 8 two-seater F-16B trainers. One of the F-16As achieved a record by being the single F-16 with the most air-to-air kills (6.5), all achieved in 1982 using three different pilots. Israel received 50 used F-16As in 1994 (including 14 B models) and used these mainly as trainers. Israel may still be able to sell some of these F-16As on the second-hand market, like it did with its older Kfir fighters (retired in the 1990s). The F-16As were the first of the nearly 400 F-16s Israel obtained from the United States since 1980. Israeli F-16s have shot down 47 aircraft, out of 67 kills for all 4,588 F-16s built. Israeli F-16A flew 474,000 sorties and spent over 335,000 hours in the air over 35 years. Israel was the most energetic user of the F-16 and also took the lead in developing upgrades and accessories. This could help in selling the older F-16As, but that is a crowded market with more and more of these oldest F-16s being retired rather than upgraded. That is easier to do with the later F-16C models and that is what Israel did with all of its F-16Cs.

Four months before the Israeli F-16A retirement production of the F-16 ceased after 44 years. The manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) will continue to do upgrades and refurbishments into the 2020s and beyond. Currently LockMart has orders for over 300 upgrades of late model F-16s to the F-16V standard. This involves replacing the mechanical radar with an AESA (phased array) radar, an upgraded cockpit, a Sniper targeting pod, a Link 16 digital data link and upgraded navigation gear. The new cockpit features a 15cm x 20cm/6x8 inch flat screen display that replaces dozens of gauges and switches and makes it much easier to fly the aircraft. AESA and the new fire control system makes it possible to track multiple aircraft at once as well as track vehicles on land or vessels at sea. The targeting pod enables the pilot to confirm (visually) what is on the surface and promptly attack it with smart bombs or missiles. LockMart expects to get orders for at least 700 F-16V upgrades. While that brings in less than $10 million per aircraft, five or ten of these upgrades equals the price of one new F-16.

The F-16 thus follows the path of previous best selling fighters. During The Cold War (1947-91) Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s, and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s but since 1991, warplane manufacturing has plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong until 2016. The U.S. still has about 1,200 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). F-16s built so far went to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used airplane market. The end of the Cold War led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. The U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low cost jet fighters.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and these cost as much as $70 million each, like the F-16I for Israel. Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. The 16 ton F-16 also has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs it is an effective bomber.

The U.S. F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually six major mods, identified by block number (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60), plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. The F-16D is a two seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components, including five different models of engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare equipment, five different radars and many other mechanical, software, cockpit and electrical modifications.

The most advanced F-16 is the F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 F-16E "Desert Falcons" which were optimized for air combat. F-16E is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, which is what the South Korean manufactured KF-16 was called, even though it was an F-16E with an AESA radar and many other additional features that was built in South Korea using a production license from the Americans manufacturer LockMart.




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