What can fighter jets do and why does Ukraine want them?

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Feb 23 2023 10:11 AM

An F-35B Lightning ll fighter aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced) aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) takes off during twilight flight operations while underway in the the Philippine Sea, June 6, 2019. Photo courtesy Cameron E. Parks/US Marine Corps/Handout
An F-35B Lightning ll fighter aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced) aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) takes off during twilight flight operations while underway in the the Philippine Sea, June 6, 2019. Photo courtesy Cameron E. Parks/US Marine Corps/Handout

During sharp turns, you are flattened into the seat by many times the force of gravity. You only maintain consciousness if you are in peak physical condition and wear special pants that squeeze the blood out of your legs. You rarely fly below 900 kilometers per hour (roughly 560 miles per hour).

"The acceleration is breathtaking." That's how former German Air Force pilot Joachim Vergin describes the feeling of flying a fighter jet.

One might compare it to riding a roller coaster, but not really: The power in a jet is often twice as strong. And during combat, you have to operate a large number of weapon systems simultaneously: Fighting, evading, defending. In an extreme situation, such as an air raid, everything is a matter of life and death, often at the speed of sound.

Engines under pressure

There is currently a debate about whether to give in to Ukraine's demand for fighter jets, such as the F-16 or the MiG-29. The first time fighter jets were used was at the end of the last major war in Europe: World War II. With their turbojet engine, jets fly much faster than propeller-driven aircraft, which had been used up to that point.

Jet engines suck air into the front of the motor, where it is compressed. Fuel is sprayed into the highly compressed air and ignited. This forces the air out of the engine "very powerfully," as Dr. Robert Kluge, an aviation expert at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, explains.

This air then pushes against any obstacle, be it the runway or the surrounding air, and thereby accelerates the aircraft.

A jet's targets: Airborne or on the ground

Fighter jets can attack targets in the air as well as on the ground. For aerial combat, a jet can be equipped with air-to-air missiles that can be fired in flight to destroy a target that is also flying.

To strike targets on the ground, a jet can use air-to-ground missiles or drop simple free-fall bombs that fall to the ground "according to the laws of physics," so to speak, said Leonhard Houben, a historian and freelancer at the Berlin-Gatow Military History Museum.

Technology of trade-offs

When building fighter jets, compromises must be made. Questions to consider include whether a jet is likely to fight other aircraft in the air, and whether those aircraft are other fighter jets that can fight back. Or should the jet only be able to effectively engage ground targets?

Such strategic considerations are then reflected in a fighter jet's technology: Should the aircraft be built to be rather light and maneuverable for air combat, or equipped with large fuel tanks for long range missions?

The MiG-29 now being discussed for delivery to Ukraine in order to help fight off Russian attacks was designed to take to the air for a very specific purpose: To protect the borders of Warsaw Pact countries against NATO aircraft.

Thus, this so-called interceptor, which entered service in 1983, can take off very quickly and reach its destination. Due to its design, the MiG-29 is extremely maneuverable in air combat. It can even stand vertically in the air on its own for short periods of time. However, the jet was initially equipped with only short-range fuel to save weight.

The F-16: A versatile performer from the assembly line

The majority of modern fighter jets combine a variety of capabilities. According to Houben, it is more economical to build so-called multi-purpose warplanes because they can be mass-produced in just one batch that can then be used for a variety of missions.

The F-16 is one such mass-produced multi-purpose aircraft. It was explicitly developed in the US in the 1970s for export to partner nations as a low-cost, general-purpose jet. The F-16 is the fighter jet with the largest worldwide production run that is still in service. To this day, the jet is still produced in the US and is being continually improved.

Houben says that arguably "F-16s built 20 years ago are on par with Russian jets built maybe three to five years ago". That's partly because fighter jet technology development in Russia lagged in the 1990s, he says, and so much talent has left the country.

More of a weapon system than a weapon 

In addition to a jet's technology, its weaponry is crucial. Without it, a jet is "just a shell, like a fire truck without a rotatable ladder," says Kluge. Like other experts, he believes it is safe to assume that if jets are delivered to Ukraine, they will also be equipped with modern weapons.

Ukraine could then use these jets to secure its own airspace. This is because, unlike air defense missiles of the kind fired by ground-based air defense systems, jets are highly mobile and can thus safeguard a large area and, using modern air-to-air missiles, also shoot down cruise missiles in the air.

According to Leonhard Houben, it is unlikely that Russian and Ukrainian jets will engage in aerial combat like in Hollywood movies. Nowadays, fighter jets would mostly fight each other with missiles outside their line of sight.

Similar to battle tanks, the rule is usually whoever fires first and hits, wins. Modern air-to-air missiles, once fired, virtually sneak up on their target and activate their conspicuous radar only shortly before impact. By then it's often too late to dodge. The reality usually has little to do with wild maneuvers, machine gun fire, and Hollywood.

Becoming a pilot takes years 

Nevertheless, a fighter pilot must also be able to engage in close combat in the event that all the missiles have been fired. They must be able to multitask under exceptional conditions. For this reason, pilots are not trained overnight: For the German Eurofighter aircraft, the training period takes five to six years and costs five million euros ― per pilot.

On his very first flight in a jet, an engine failed, says former pilot Vergin. Although he was scared, he knew exactly what to do because of "drills and training," and he remained calm and landed the plane safely.

However, each pilot often learns to fly just one type of fighter jet, as retraining for another type of jet is costly. When Vergin switched from the Phantom fighter jet to the Tornado, the training took seven months.

This is also where all the experts interviewed see a major challenge for Ukrainian pilots. All manuals, all buttons in NATO jets are labeled in English. Not easy when you can read only Cyrillic script. Also, all figures are in feet and miles. Pilots in former Soviet Union countries learn to fly on the basis of the metric system.

The Jet as a Myth 

In war, however, fighter jets are more than the sum of their technical capabilities.

Robert Kluge, for example, describes the aircraft as a "myth" because, unlike humans, it can also move in the third dimension.

A fighter jet can even be seen as a symbol that can boost the morale of one's own troops. And as an important chess piece in the strategy of a war, simply having it can be enough to make enemies have second thoughts.

This text was originally published in German.

Watch more News on iWantTFC