Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in the cockpit of an F-16 as they announce the delivery of these fighters to Ukraine.
The promise of F-16s and Prigozhin’s downfall
Text: Miro Barič
Photos: Ukrainian armed forces, social media and other public sources
In this part of the series, we follow the period from August 1 to August 31, which was really eventfull. Among the most notable happenings is the promise of F-16 fighter deliveries, although things won’t be so hot with them in the short term. The earliest Ukraine will get them is next year, when the first pilots will be trained under accelerated training programme. The second significant event was the death of the owner of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, exactly two months after his attempted coup.
After several months of speculation, delays and conflicting information about who and when would start training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16, the first news about the provision of these aircraft to Ukraine has arrived. On Sunday, August 20, it was announced that the Netherlands would donate 42 of these aircraft and Denmark would add another 19. On Thursday, August 24, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Norway also joined in. It had already scrapped its F-16s in early 2022 and sold some of them to Romania, while the rest was stored. Now Norway has announced that it will also provide the aircraft that it manages to return to operational status to Ukraine. It is believed that there will be a maximum of 10 aircraft from Norway.
In total, Ukraine may receive around 70 fighters from these three countries. In all cases, these will be F-16AM Block 20 MLUs. They were produced in the 1980s and the abbreviation MLU means that they have received the so-called Mid Life Upgrade. The cockpit and avionics of these fighters have been upgraded to the standard of the Block 50 version. Pilots were given helmet sights that they can use in close combat maneuvering. However, these do not occur in Ukraine and it probably will not change with the arrival of the F-16s.
Zelensky decorating members of the air force on August 6. A whole series of interesting shots were taken on that occasion. This one shows a Su-27 “White 52” with the numbers retouched out. The MiG-29 “white 22” on the left in the background does not have the number retouched.
Here you can see the Su-27 “white 52” and the MiG-29 “white 22” also with numbers. The Su-27 has a HARM missile under the wing.
The F-16AM Block 20 MLU carries the older AN/APG-66(V2) radar. However, the radar’s computer processor has been significantly upgraded to process data faster and acquire multiple targets at once. The range of this radar is claimed to be 150 km, a value theoretically achieved by the manufacturer under ideal conditions. The actual range of the radar depends on a number of conditions, such as flight altitude or electronic interference from an adversary. Thus, in a real situation, the range of the AN/APG-66(V2) is around 80 km. Ukraine will also not get the latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles with its F-16s, but older ones with a range of around 50–60 km. Even so, this will be an improvement on the current situation. The Ukrainian fighters are armed with R-27 missiles with semi-active radar guidance, which means that the target must be locked during the time the missile is intercepting its target. And this is virtually impossible in a situation where Ukrainian fighters face numerical superiority. The active radar guidance of the AIM-120 missiles is thus a major advance.
Thanks to the F-16s and the AIM-120 missiles, the Ukrainian Air Force will equal the Russian forces. In fact, the radars of Russian fighters and their R-77 missiles have similar parameters – despite the fact that Russian aircraft manufacturers advertise completely different numbers. For example, for the radars of Su-30 fighters, they give a range of 200 to 300 km. However, there is a big difference in the distance at which the radar picks up “something”, at what distance it recognizes what it is, and at what distance the fighter is able to conduct effective combat. That last number is at a similar level to that of the older AIM-120 missiles that Ukraine will receive – around 50 km.
But factor in the strong air defenses operating on both sides and it is clear that the status quo will not change even with the arrival of the F-16s. And that is that neither side’s aircraft are crossing the front line – even getting too close is very dangerous. The F-16 will probably have the advantage over the existing Ukrainian aircraft of better warning sensors and can carry various containers for radio-electronic warfare, but it cannot stand up to strong air defense either.
Zelensky climbed into the cockpit and tried out the pilot simulator.
At the event on August 6 was a Su-24 with the number “white 09” with a thin yellow border. Interestingly it had a SCALP-EG missile with French symbols under the right wing and a Storm Shadow with British symbols under the left wing.
The Ukrainians will probably use the F-16s for the same things they now use the Su-27 and MiG-29s for, i.e., to protect airspace in case of penetration by Russian aircraft, to escort other aircraft on attack missions, and to counter suicide drones and cruise missiles. While for the Su-27 and MiG-29 there is limited quantity of spare parts available in the world, the situation is different for the F-16 and it is significantly easier to maintain them in a long-term airworthy condition.
Such use of the aircraft is also indicated by the training of Ukrainian pilots. When the program was being developed, two pilots underwent two weeks of testing in the USA at the end of February and the beginning of March. These were active Ukrainian pilots, one flying MiG-29s and the other Su-27s, to assess the possibility of retraining them. The testing was conducted exclusively on a simulator, where they tried out only one type of mission. It was an aerial combat against one target, or maximum two targets, using two types of weapons – one radar-guided missile (AIM-120 AMRAAM) and one infrared-guided missile (AIM-9 Sidewinder).
It is not possible to learn anything else during the accelerated training that the Ukrainians undergo. The first group could complete the conversion as early as the turn of this year and next year. These are the ten pilots with the best English. It is language proficiency that is the most limiting factor, not only for pilots, but especially for ground staff. It also follows that Ukraine will not receive the aforementioned 70 F-16s all at once, but gradually, as groups of pilots complete their training.
A PPDS drone from the Australian company Sypaq Corvo is made of cardboard. It can carry 5 kg of explosives.
Ground attacks as a matter of time
In addition to the experienced pilots, who are to be trained as early as possible, there is also going to be a group of complete novices who will receive comprehensive pilot training lasting two years. These will apparently also receive training for specialized missions with guided air-to-ground weapons. The Ukrainians are already launching both AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles and JDAM-ER guided bombs from their old Soviet aircraft. However, they can only use them in a limited mode. They can only program them on the ground before takeoff, so the pilot cannot change the target coordinates during flight. When used this way, the HARM missile, for example, will guide itself to the first radar it detects. If the Ukrainians get the AN/ASQ-213 HTS (HARM Targeting System) guidance container on their F-16s, the pilot could choose the most important radar to hit from a number of enemy radars detected.
The F-16 cannot carry the Franco-British Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missiles, which the Ukrainians are using effectively, and there is no talk yet of possible US deliveries. What it can carry, however, are Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which Ukraine also already has. And that’s not good news for Russia’s badly beleaguered Black Sea Fleet.
Speaking of the Black Sea and Storm Shadow missiles, these are among weapons that allow Ukraine to gradually gain superiority over the western part of the sea and attack Crimea even without a strong navy. Already on Sunday, August 6, two bridges connecting Crimea to the Kherson region were hit and seriously damaged by Storm Shadow missiles. These were the important Chonkhar Bridge in the north-west of Crimea and the smaller Henichesk Bridge, which leads to the Arabat Spit in the north-east of the peninsula. The destruction of these bridges would sever Crimea’s links with the frontline areas in southern Ukraine.
Burning Il-76 at Pskov airport after the night attack on August 29.
The destruction of the Kerch Bridge would then cut off the whole of Crimea for good, which could then only be supplied by ships. The Ukrainians regularly try to do this as well. During the reporting period, they attacked this bridge on Saturday, August 12, with S-200 missiles. These are old anti-aircraft missiles from the 1960s, which Ukraine decommissioned in 2013, but kept in storage and now uses as ballistic missiles after modification (presumably they have new GPS guidance fitted). In this role, they have a range of up to 400 km. The missiles are 11 m long and weigh almost 8 tones. At Mach 4, they thus have tremendous kinetic energy on impact. They also carry a warhead with 217 kg of explosive. Ukraine has already used them in July in attacks on an industrial facility in the Briansk region and on the Morozovsk airport in the Rostov region. In the August attack, three S-200 missiles were aimed at the Kerch Bridge. According to the Russian side, they were all destroyed in time by air defenses. The smoke that appeared on the bridge was only a precautionary protective measure. Interestingly, however, two streaks of black smoke were also visible in the white smoke screen.
On Wednesday, August 23, Ukrainian missiles hit and partially destroyed a battery of S-400 anti-aircraft system in Olenivka on the Crimean coast (about 120 km north of Sevastopol and 140 km south of Kherson. In doing so, they probably used Neptune missiles developed for anti-ship warfare but also capable of hitting targets on the coast. But that was not all – the next day (or night) Ukrainian special forces landed on the coast between Olenivka and Mayak. They completed the work of destruction and raised the Ukrainian flag in Crimea (August 24 was a Ukrainian national holiday). The Russians claim to have killed all the Ukrainian soldiers in this action; the Ukrainians claim to have pulled back without casualties. All that is certain is that the S-400 battery was destroyed. Ukrainian troops from boats also seized four oil platforms, on which the Russian had radars mounted, in the Black Sea during August. All of this is leading to the blinding of Russian defenses and a greater intensity of Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, which we will address in a follow-up.
A burning Russian Tu-22M3 bomber at Solcy-2 airfield. The Russian side initially claimed that it was only slightly damaged in the attack on August 19.
Attacks on airports
Ukraine has not only attacked Crimea, but also Russian territory on the opposite side. In addition to the ongoing drone campaign against Moscow, the attacks on Russian airports are of particular interest for the topic of this series. On Saturday, August 19, the Solcy-2 base in Novgorod region, 620 km from Ukraine, was attacked in broad daylight. At first Russia admitted to the damaging of one bomber, but then photographs emerged showing that one Tu-22M3 bomber was burned to the ground in this attack. Satellite images later confirmed that the base had been evacuated and the remaining bombers had flown further north.
Two days later, on Monday, August 21, the Shaykovka base in the Kaluga region, from which Tu-22M3s also operate, was also attacked. Ukrainian intelligence claimed that in both of these attacks two bombers were destroyed and two damaged. The Russian side confirmed the attack on the Shaykovka airfield, adding that all Ukrainian drones were destroyed. We will probably not know how it really happened until a long time from now, as was the case with the attack on the Diaghilevo airfield near Ryazan. This was attacked by Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh drones in December 2022. Shortly after the attack, the destruction of one vehicle and damage to a Tu-22M3 bomber was photographically confirmed. The Russian side also confirmed at the time that three Russian soldiers had lost their lives. Now, however, Russia has issued an international arrest warrant for Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Burdenyuk, who commands the 383rd unmanned aerial vehicle regiment. These Russian documents include a detailed description of the December 5, 2022, action, according to which the Ukrainian attack at the Diaghilevo base damaged not one, but three Tu-22M3 bombers. Two buildings and two vehicles were also hit, and in addition to the three dead soldiers, seven others were wounded. By the way, Russia is looking for Burdenyuk on suspicion of “organizing illegal Ukrainian drone incursions into Russian airspace.” So, what is Russia doing in Ukraine as of February 24, 2022, then?
The Ukrainians pulled off a stunt on Tuesday, August 29, when they hit the airport in the city of Pskov. This is located 700 km from Ukraine, near the Estonian border. The result of this action is also presented differently by the two sides. Russia has admitted that four Il-76 transport aircraft were damaged, Ukraine claims that four aircraft were completely destroyed and two damaged. In all likelihood, two of the Il-76s were completely burnt out, as confirmed by the videos, and the other two were damaged. These were hit at the point where the fuselage joins the centerplane but did not catch fire. Satellite images show large holes in the upper part of their fuselages.
According to unconfirmed information, up to 20 drones attacked Pskov. They were supposed to be PPDS drones manufactured by the Australian company Sypaq Corvo. These drones are made of paper and are supplied as a jigsaw puzzle. They are powered by an electric motor, with which they have a range of 120 km and can carry 5 kg of explosives. This means that someone must have launched these drones from Russian territory during the attack on Pskov ...
The Australian government has been providing PPDS drones to Ukraine since the spring of this year. The advantage is the low cost due to the material being waxed cardboard. It also makes the drone virtually undetectable by radar. The Ukrainians also used them in an attack against the Khalino airfield in the Kursk region on the night of 26–27 August, where, according to Ukrainian counterintelligence, five fighter jets were hit, as well as two radars and two air defense systems. However, this information remains unconfirmed.
All these successful attacks on airports have led to a bizarre countermeasure on the Russian side. Satellite images of tire-covered aircraft have emerged from several bases. These were mainly Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers, but also Su-34s. It is not clear what the Russians intend by this – whether it is to protect against explosives or whether the tires distort the radar or infrared image of the aircraft in the drones’ sensors. It is also possible that they are testing something else entirely. Either way, the tires seem to have only appeared on aircraft that are not airworthy and serve as a source of spare parts. Several Tu-95s, for example, are missing propellers or entire engines, and even the tire-covered Su-34 has its engines removed. Perhaps the Russians want to protect aircraft that do not change position and are therefore easily detected by reconnaissance.
After the Ukrainian drone attacks, some Russian aircraft were given protection from old tires. Maxar’s satellite image shows a Tu-95 with its propellers dismantled.
Rubber protection was also given to this Su-34 with its engines dismantled.
Ukraine did not only achieve success in attacks on Russian airfields during the reporting period. While the previous month of July was completely free of losses in the air, August was particularly bad for the Ukrainian air force. It started as early as August 1, when a Mi-8 was shot down near Mykhailivka in Kherson Oblast. The video shows that the low-flying helicopter caught fire after being hit and made an emergency landing. On the ground it then burned completely. The fate of the crew is unknown.
On Friday, August 25, two Aero L-39 Albatros aircraft from the 40th Tactical Air Force Brigade collided. The wreckage of the aircraft crashed near the village of Sinhury in the Zhytomyr region. All three pilots – Major Vyacheslav Minka, Major Serhiy Prokazin and Captain Andriy Pilshchikov – were killed. The latter had the call sign “Juice” and was the face of a campaign demanding the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. He was killed just as this Ukrainian pilots’ dream was beginning to become a reality.
Ukrainian Mi-8 in action.
Originally a Slovak Mi-17 helicopter (ex 0844).
All three named were MiG-29 fighter pilots, and at the time of their deaths, Ukrainian media reported that they had died in combat flight, which would suggest action against the Shahed-136 kamikaze drone. However, they later reported that the aircraft collided in a violent maneuver while practicing aerial combat.
Another crash came on Tuesday, August 29, near Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region. Two Mi-8 helicopters from the 18th separate brigade of the army air force crashed there during a combat mission, killing all six airmen on board – Colonel Viktor Opanasiuk, Captain Yuri Anisimov, Captain Yevgeny Kysil, Captain Vladyslav Rymar, Lieutenant Commander Ivan Yarovoy and Lieutenant Commander Valentyn Vorobets.
Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jets. Their pilots will eventually see them replaced by F-16s.
Austrian military expert Tom Cooper said in this context that this was an unintended side-effect of the successful Ukrainian artillery campaign. The latter has managed to successfully suppress the Russian artillery, which is losing 20–30 barrels a day. Every time the Russian artillery makes a sound, it faces Ukrainian anti-artillery fire. Therefore, the Russians have to replace artillery with drone attacks and air force attacks that uses glide-guided bombs. The attack aircraft are accompanied by fighter jets, and it was on one such flight that a Russian Su-35 intercepted a pair of Ukrainian helicopters. Their pilots were informed of the presence of the Russian fighter and attempted to land and thus avoid it but collided. The Russian side claims that the Mi-8s were shot down. Their wreckage in the footage is close together, so the more likely version is that they collided while attempting an emergency landing.
Two Ukrainian Albatroses with the numbers “blue 102” and “blue 107” collided near the village of Sinhury on August 25.
Three pilots, including Captain Andriy Pilshchykov, were killed in the Albatroses collision.
The Russian side also suffered heavy losses in August. The list of destroyed Ka-52 helicopters was extended again. One was shot down on Monday, August 7, in the Robotyne area and both crew members were killed. Another one was destroyed on Thursday, August 17, near Novoprokopivka. This time the pilot managed to use the ejection seat and was rescued by an accompanying Mi-8 helicopter. Both Ka-52s were shot down by members of the Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade.
Non-combat flight losses are also on the rise, which may be contributed to by poor maintenance during the war as well as mistakes by overworked pilots. On Sunday, August 12, a crew of Su-30SMs from the 4th Independent Regiment of Naval Assault Aviation performed a low overflight near the village of Urgyumovo in the Kaliningrad Region. It crashed into the ground and both pilots were killed. On Monday, August 14, an L-39 Albatros trainer crashed at the Khanskaya base in the Adygeya Republic in the Caucasus. Colonel Vadim Gurov was killed, and the other crew member was injured. And on Tuesday, August 29, a Mi-8 helicopter of the FSB border guard crashed in the Chelyabinsk region. The three-member crew did not survive the crash.
Wreckage of a Russian Ka-52 helicopter shot down by the Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade near Novoprokopivka on August 17.
Defection with a helicopter
In addition to these losses and the aforementioned aircraft destroyed at airfields, the Russian armed forces also lost one aircraft in a defection for the first time in this war. Ukraine has been trying to motivate Russian pilots with the promise of money and safety for their whole family since the beginning of the conflict. In August, the pilot of a Mi-8AMTS helicopter with the fuselage number “Red 62” and the code designation RF-04438 responded. Maxim Kuzminov of the 319th Independent Helicopter Regiment was in contact with the Ukrainian intelligence that got his family abroad. He then flew the helicopter himself to the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. The other two crew members were unaware of his plan to defect and were killed by Ukrainian soldiers after landing. According to some reports, they tried to flee; according to others, they made a last-minute effort to prevent Kuzmin from deserting.
The Russian pilot received a reward of half a million US dollars, a new identity and a job. The new Mi-8AMTS has been incorporated into Ukraine’s forces. After landing, Kuzminov talked about the absurd conditions in the Russian armed forces. For example, the commander of his unit had his cat flown in by a Mi-8 helicopter, which was additionally accompanied by Mi-24 as an armed escort during this “mission”.
Russian Mi-8AMTS with fuselage number “Red 62” and code designation RF-04438 shortly after landing on Ukrainian territory.
Pilot Maxim Kuzminov of the Russian 319th Independent Helicopter Regiment defected to the Ukrainian side.
Mi-8AMTS “Red 62” in Ukrainian service with Russian markings obliterated.
Revenge after two months
The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner mercenary group, can also be counted among the losses related to the war in Ukraine. He was killed in a plane crash along with other members of his mercenary leadership exactly two months after the failed coup attempt. The private Embraer EMB-135BJ Legacy 600, registration RA-02795, was flying from Moscow to St Petersburg on Wednesday, August 23, when it broke into three parts after an explosion and crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region, some 100 km north of the Russian capital.
The plane’s crash was caught on video. Two condensation trails and a puff of white smoke were visible in the sky, followed by two explosions, according to witnesses. Then the fuselage of the plane was seen falling to the ground without one half of the wing and without tail. During the crash, it twisted wildly in the air – just like the Il-22M shot down by the Wagners on June 24 during the march on Moscow. The fuselage, wing and tail fell on different places within a radius of three kilometers. The fuselage burned up after impact, killing all ten people on board. In addition to Prigozhin, these included his deputy and well-known neo-Nazi Dmitry Utkin and Wagner’s logistics chief Valery Chekalov. The two pilots and a stewardess also perished. If this was a political assassination, there was state terrorism in Russia regardless of these innocent victims.
Wagner channels reported that the plane was shot down by anti-aircraft missiles. Some Western sources are leaning towards a bomb explosion on board. Traces resembling shrapnel holes could be seen on the wreckage. The Russian authorities are not making much effort to investigate. A request for access by Brazil manufacturer Embraer has been rejected. And a video taken shortly after the crash showed the severed wing being dragged along the ground by a tractor from the impact site. Behind it, two men were walking and picking up pieces of the wing that had broken off in that dragging. So much for some pretence of trying to investigate the disaster.
Burning wreckage of the Embraer EMB-135BJ Legacy 600 with registration RA-02795 in which Prigozhin and other members of the Wagner leadership died.