Should Venezuela Transfer its F-16s to Russia?

Amid escalating tensions between Washington and Caracas, a number of the United States’ actions have been deemed highly illegal by the Venezuelan government and its allies – from harsh economic sanctions to unilaterally declaring a Western favoured candidate, Juan Guaido, the legitimate president of the country (despite him not having previously contended in elections.) Venezuela for its part has done relatively little to retaliate against the United States, and while continuing to adopt a highly defensive survivalist strategy has not revealed any meaningful plans to deter further pressure or aggressive actions by Washington – which for its part continues to threaten it with military action. Should Venezuela, a small third world state with negligible economic assets beyond its oil reserves, seek means of retaliating against perceived American transgressions, it may well find the answer to its problem in its Air Force – namely in its small fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons which were acquired from the United States in 1983.

The Venezuelan Air Force was one of the very first in the world to deploy the F-16, a single engine light multirole fighter designed as a lighter and less costly complement to the heavy twin engine F-15 Eagle. 21 Fighting Falcons are currently in service, 17 single seat and four twin seat variants, which serve as lighter complements to the more recently acquired Russian Su-30MK2 twin engine air superiority fighters. While the Su-30 jets are high end heavy fighters, and by a significant margin the most capable deployed anywhere in the Americas outside the United States, the capabilities of Venezuela’s F-16 fleet are somewhat unremarkable. Not only was the F-16 never designed for high end air to air missions as the Su-30 was – that having been the role of the F-15 – but it is also a considerably older design – dating back over 40 years to 1978. The sensors, manoeuvrability, altitude, range, weapons payload and electronic warfare capabilities of the Su-30 are thus several leagues above the Fighting Falcon – and while the recently acquired Russian jets are a formidable deterrent to potential attacks by the United States and neighbouring countries, this is far from the case for the F-16. While the Su-30MK2 jets in Venezuelan service have access to high end air to air munitions, including the 130km range R-27ER and 110km range R-77, Venezuela’s F-16s by contrast lacks any long range air to air munitions whatsoever, relying solely on older variants of the AIM-9 Sidewinder as well as the Israeli Python 4 – with an engagement range of just 15km. 

While the value of the F-16 in the Venezuelan fleet is extremely limited, particularly so given the shortage of parts following the U.S. arms embargo against the country, it does present a potentially highly valuable asset for the country’s allies – in particularly Russia. It is notable that the United States has in the past gone to great lengths to acquire high end Soviet and Russian combat jets, purchasing them from former allies such as Egypt and China or from post-Soviet states such as Belarus. The U.S. Air Force benefitted greatly from access to platforms such as the MiG-21 (from Indonesia, China), MiG-23 (from Egypt) MiG-29 (from Moldova) and Su-27 (from Belarus), not only gaining the opportunity to study their technologies, but also allowing for a greater opportunity understand how they operated and what their limitations and potentials were based on experience test flying them. One of the greatest uses the U.S. could make out of these Soviet fighters, which were widely deployed by potential adversaries from the USSR to North Korea, Iran and China, was their deployment to aggressor squadrons – in which they were flown as ‘red squadrons’ in simulated air to air combat against American pilots – providing invaluable experience in combatting these jets. 

The value of the F-16 would arguably be considerably higher to the Russian Air Force, or those of other potential U.S. adversaries such as China, compared to the relatively meagre addition it currently provides to Venezuelan air defences. Indeed, even its value as an aggressor trainer for the Venezuelan military is negligible – as no neighbouring countries deploy the Fighting Falcon while a potential U.S. assault would likely be spearheaded by higher end longer ranged jets like the F-22 with standoff support from bombers – followed by the Navy’s F-18 and F-35 jets once airbases and air defences are neutralised. Against high end American aircraft, and given the U.S. military’s obvious familiarity with the F-16 – the most widely deployed combat platform in service with approximately 1000 aircraft, the F-16A’s value for Venezuela would be negligible. Should the Russian or other allied fleets acquire these jets however, they would make excellent aggressor trainers and would provide a greater understanding of fourth generation American military aviation which many of these powers currently lack. 

Russian acquisition of American jets for aggressor training is not itself without precedent. The F-5E light fighter – the F-16’s third generation predecessor – proved immensely useful to the Soviet Air Force during aggressor training in the 1970s, when the aircraft were acquired in large number from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. The U.S. military for its part was notably careful to evacuate its own higher end more elite fighters, the F-4E Phantoms – predecessors of the F-15, and ensured that none of these fell into Soviet hands. While the F-5 never formed the mainstay of the American fleet, and was primarily manufactured for the country’s third world allies, the F-16 does serve this role today and is likely to continue to do so well into the 2030s – possibly much longer as the upgraded F-16V variant if the F-35 program intended to replace it should see further delays. Russia for its part could more than compensate Venezuela for the Fighting Falcons – either providing more heavy fighters such as the Su-30MK2 to expand the existing fleet or providing a lighter complementary platform such as the MiG-29 or even the advanced MiG-35. These aircraft, all modern, comparable with high end Russian munitions and not reliant on spare parts from hostile Western powers, would prove a far more valuable asset to Venezuelan defences. 

While sales of the fighters to a third party without American consent is prohibited under the contract under which the F-16 was initially delivered, Venezuela may well see it as a just response to what it perceives to be America’s own illegal actions. Indeed, Caracas had previously sought to sell its Fighting Falcons to Iran in the mid 2000s – provoking Washington’s ire. Selling them to Russia would if anything be seen as a considerably worse development by the United States, and on Russia’s part could well be seen as compensation for the loss of technological secrets which ensued when Washington encouraged Egypt and Indonesia to breach their own contracts with Moscow and provide the MiG-23 and MiG-21 respectively to the U.S. military. Whether Venezuela will pursue or has even considered this course of action remains to be seen, but it remains an interesting possibility and one of the few sources of leverage Caracas may have to respond to Washington’s actions. 


Source: Military Watch Magazine

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