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While battling Russian air superiority, Ukrainian pilots beg for F-16s.

Flying in formation, two Ukrainian fighter planes rumble barely above the treetops on their way to the front lines of the country’s counteroffensive.

The Su-25s from the Soviet era glide slowly, make a lot of noise, and emit a lot of black smoke. They appear to fly extremely low to escape detection by Russian radars, air defenses, and, most crucially, hostile fighters.

The Su-25s are outdated planes that have been around since the 1980s; they can’t compete with Russia’s Su-35s and their cutting-edge radars and missiles.

“We lose many aircraft to these interceptors,” says Oleksyi, a Su-25 pilot who goes by the codename “Pumba.” Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began a year and a half ago, he has lost numerous compatriots and knows all too well the uphill battle he and his colleagues face.

Pumba explains, “In battle, I lost both my squad leader and my wingman.” Both of them are true Ukrainian heroes.

He still carries the emotional scars from the deaths of his loved ones.

“When you see your colleague explode in front of your eyes, in real time, it’s a shock,” he explains, adding that the conflict continues.

The greatest conflict is always fought inwardly, as one must ask oneself, “How do I find the strength, the force, the soul, the spirit to fly again?”

Although the battle has been going on for almost a year and a half, Pumba is one of only a handful of pilots who have continued to serve the Ukrainian air force. Now more than ever, the role of attack aviation airmen like him is essential, as Ukraine has gone on the offensive.

He elaborates, saying, “This plane’s primary mission is to back up our ground forces at the front.” It’s become one of our top priorities.

Despite their limitations, their air support is essential.

The guys on the ground, Pumba explains, send “thank you” signals when the mission is over. The morale of our ground forces will rise, I believe.

When Kyiv’s ground forces try to launch a counteroffensive, they often find themselves unable to do so due to Russian air superiority. Russia’s continued air supremacy hampers the advancement of ground forces.

A deputy battalion commander from one of the 128 Separate Territorial Defense Brigade’s units stated, “Their aviation operates in waves, as it did in Vietnam and Afghanistan.” The commander, who uses the call sign “Spas,” explained, “They work continuously, all day long, either by helicopters or by airplanes.” “Aviational support is severely lacking across the board.” Nonetheless, Spas remarked that earthbound forces were, in fact, advancing.”

The 45 Su-25s and Mig-29s donated to Ukraine by NATO and European allies aren’t merely a numbers game, though. According to “Juice,” a Mig-29 pilot, Western nations may aid Ukraine by providing the country with the sought-after F-16s, and the pilot acknowledged the difficulties faced by the Ukrainian air force.

Strong competitor

The plane was constructed in the United States, so it can refuel itself while in the air and it can use the majority of the NATO weaponry that have already been provided to Ukraine. A fierce competitor to most Russian aircraft, with the exception of newer models that Moscow has been hesitant to deploy in Ukraine, the MiG-35 has been upgraded several times since it first went into production in the 1980s, making it more advanced and versatile than any jet Ukraine currently has in its fleet.

Juice explains, “If we had F-16s, our counteroffensive would be much more effective and safer for our guys on the ground.” Since the F-16 is capable of accomplishing so much vital work for our troops, for the resistance, I think it might be a major game changer for the counter-offensive and for the entire battle.

Juice shares Pumba’s apprehension of Russian air defenses and Su-35s, but claims that the Ukrainians have mitigated these threats with strategic adjustments.

“We try to move around to avoid them and set up windows to attack the targets when the risks are lowest, and it actually works,” he says. However, this is no assurance of our safety because Russia is making its own efforts to improve and adapt.

While they keep flying these planes, not even missiles supplied by the West can guarantee their safety.

He explains, “Unfortunately, in the case of HARM missiles, it’s limited a bit,” and goes on to explain that Ukraine can only utilize about 25% of the capacity of these radar targeting missiles. We are unable to fully use it due of range and accuracy restrictions.

“The same missiles on an F-16 would work much better,” he says.

Defense Minister Oleksyi Reznikov and President Volodymyr Zelensky have both made the acquisition of F-16s a top priority in response to the demands of pilots like Juice and Pumba. Some Western countries, led by the United States, have shown reluctance to the plan, apparently fearing an escalation with Moscow. The United States has recently stated that it will provide pilot training for Ukrainian aircraft, in response to pressure from the United Kingdom and Denmark.

More is required.

Juice and his squad had been training for a very long time.

A year ago, we began teaching ourselves, he explains. We’re using homemade F-16 simulators to practice flying and reading English manuals that aren’t secret.

“All our young guys are eager to learn how to fly a new kind of jet,” he says.

He’s confident that, with this drive and initiative, he’ll have no trouble learning the ropes of the new plane.

I think we can learn to fly it in four to six months, it’s possible, he says. The training for our new position will be ridiculously simple.

Juice estimates that Ukraine needs between 12 and 20 jets to even the playing field, and considerably more to have a significant military impact.

For “all our tasks, for frontline operations and for operations in peaceful region, we need like three or four of these squadrons,” he says. I think we’ll need more than 100 in the long run, therefore we should prepare for the future now.

Juice and Pumba are confident in a final Ukrainian victory, but they wish they could do more to aid their countrymen as they finally launch the long-awaited counteroffensive.

Juice says, “Right now we’re stuck. Our weapons and radars are useless against them.”

He claims that the F-16 will be useful in this situation.

While Russian aviation technology remains superior, Ukrainian pilots will have a tough time forcing their Russian counterparts out of Ukrainian airspace.

“When we have this plane, we might hit one or two Russian planes. They’ll be scared, maybe change their tactics, and I think they’ll stop flying over occupied territory,” Pumba says. It will clear the way for our ground troops to launch their assault.

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