A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 1, 2024

How Ukraine's New Swedish AWACS Make Its F-16s More Lethal

By linking its powerful radar with F-16s and Patriot missiles, these Swedish made Saab AWACS planes can target glide-bomb carrying Russian planes intending to launch hundreds of kilometers behind the Russian border and take them out, eliminating one of Russia's previous advantages. JL 

RO 37 reports in Daily Kos:

The Swedish Ministry of Defense formally announced it would be transferring 2 Saab 340 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) aircraft to Ukraine. These two Saab 340s, once combined with F-16 fighter squadrons, will put an end to the prolific use of Russia’s potent glide bombs. The ASC 890 radar can detect non-stealth enemy planes up to 400km away, which means a Saab 340 equipped with ASC 890 can fly at 25,000 feet, operating 250+km behind enemy lines, and detect Russian fighters flying 100km behind the front. If F-16, a NASAMS or Patriot launcher is in range, they can radar lock and hit a Glide bomb carrying plane with the ASC 890’s help.

On May 29th, 2024, the Swedish Ministry of Defense formally announced it would be transferring 2 ASC 890-equipped Saab 340 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) aircraft to Ukraine.  While this move was lauded as hugely beneficial to Ukraine, I feel that not enough ink has been spilled to explain why this move has such immense significance.

To put it shortly, these two Saab 340s, once their abilities can be combined with F-16 fighter squadrons, will likely put an end to the prolific use of one of Russia’s most potent weapons in the past year: the glide bomb.


Russian glide bombs have a release range of 35-40km under combat conditions.  Far enough that Russian fighter-bombers can skim the ground to avoid radar detection, pull up into a sharp climb to “lob” the bomb at Ukrainian targets, and then rely on satellite coordinate guidance for the bomb to glide to hit its targets.

Compared to American JDAM and French Hammer glide bombs, Russian bombs are judged to have poor accuracy, but Russia makes up for this by equipping far larger bombs.  While Ukraine primarily uses 230 kg bombs (they don’t need a larger size for most targets, because of their precision), Russians use 500, 1000, and 1500 kg glide bombs, with 500 and 1000kg bombs being the most commonly deployed size.  The far larger destructive radius of the bombs makes up for their relative lack of precision, making them fearsome weapons.

Russians evade detection from Ukrainian air defense system’s radar using altitude and radar clutter.

RadarClutter.pngFrom ground level, radar has trouble distinguishing between ground clutter (trees and other tall objects) which it is designed to ignore, and objects flying at low altitudes.

Additionally, the curvature of the earth makes detection of low flying aircraft difficult beyond about 30km.


What this means is that Russian bombers can fly at super low altitudes, skimming the ground to hide amidst radar clutter and rely on the curvature of the earth to get within 35-40km of the front lines.  It can deploy the bomb, and then bank home without risking being shot down by a Ukrainian SAM unit.


Using this impunity, Russia has made frequent use of glide bombs in attacking key frontline Ukrainian targets in the past year. A tactic for which Ukraine has not had any good answers.

For example, Russian forces have been engaged in a furious battle for Vovchansk in Kharkiv Oblast.  You can see that on May 29th alone, Russian bombers struck 10 different Ukrainian targets with glide bomb attacks, per Andrew Perpetua’s map.

This is not atypical at all—since early 2023, Russia has rapidly ramped up production of glidebombs, to the point where it has become one of Russia’s primary weapons.

Russia has been averaging over 100 glide bomb attacks per day since the Summer of 2023, and Russia launched a massive glide bombing attack campaign striking the area around Vovchansk in support of its offensive, striking that town with 200 glide bomb strikes in 7 days in the first week of May, virtually leveling large sections of the town.

It is, quite simply, one of Russia’s most important volume weapons in the war.  It is particularly important because Russia lacks ground launched precision guided weapons in quantity, and Russian artillery volume has steadily declined since the heyday of Russian artillery bombardments in Summer 2022.


Ukrainian advantages like advanced counterbattery radar and HIMARS, as well as the declining availability of Russian artillery replacement tubes, has forced Russia to rely on more and more archaic artillery to keep its firepower at acceptable levels.  Since mid-2023, glide bombs have played an increasingly crucial role in maintaining Russian firepower.

This is why the F-16, paired with the Swedish ASC 890 airborne radar, may play a massively important role.

The first thing that must be understood is how Ukraine will use the F-16 in an air to air role.  While Americans are accustomed to seeing US fighters flying at high altitudes to engage enemy targets, this is not the kind of role that Ukrainian F-16s will play.

The ability to fly at high altitudes is predicated on being able to survive.  F-35s and F22s can fly at altitude thanks to their stealth abilities.  Non-stealth US planes can only fly at high altitudes if enemy SAM batteries have been cleared.

This is because of the aforementioned radar detection effects—by flying low, non-stealth aircraft can rely on radar clutter and the curvature of the earth to avoid enemy attacks.

This means, Ukrainian F-16s cannot survive if they are flying 10,000 feet+.  At that altitude, if they come anywhere close to the front lines, they will be engaged by Russian SAM batteries and be destroyed.


However, if a Ukrainian F-16 is relying on its own radar to detect enemy aircraft, its radar is limited also by the curvature of the earth. 

An F-35 flying at 45,000 feet can basically “see over” the horizon, allowing it to detect enemy fighters at distances of 150km-200km, since at that altitude, the curvature of the earth no longer presents a problem.

An F-16 flying at 300 feet can only “see” up to around 45-50km, up to the radar horizon.  This is a bit further than a ground-bound SAM unit’s radar tower, but it still presents some significant limitations in engaging in air to air combat.

The higher the radar, the further the radar horizon.  Being able to use radar detection while fly high in the air is a massive advantage.

That is where the two ASC 890 Radar-equipped Saab 340 AEW&C can come in.

You may wonder how far just 2 aircraft will go in such a large theater of conflict, but this image below from Noel Reports illustrates just how far the ASC 890 radar can detect.


The ASC 890 radar can detect non-stealth enemy planes up to 400km away, and up to 350km even the target is flying at super low altitudes in high radar clutter environments with heavy electronic warfare interference.

This means a Saab 340 equipped with the ASC 890 can fly at 25,000 feet, while operating 250+km behind enemy lines, and still detect Russian fighters flying at super low altitudes over 100km behind the front.

The sheer distance by which the Saab 340 operates from the front protects it from almost all forms of anti-air capabilities, and even if a ultra-long range missile is fired at it, it has plenty of time to deploy countermeasures to protect itself.

For example, one of the longest ranged Russian anti-air missiles is the R-37M missile, with a claimed range of 400+km, but the longest recorded kill by the Russian air force has been just over 200km.  Ukrainian pilots claim the missile is fairly easy to evade if the pilots see it coming and deploy countermeasures—and the Saab 340’s ASC 890 radar virtually ensures that Ukrainian pilots will see the missile coming.

What is critically important then, is that the ASC 890 has an integrated datalink that allows it to transfer missile locks to F-16 fighters.  ASC 890 has Link 16 datalink capabilities, meaning its radar functionality can be fully integrated with a linked F-16, much like a NATO E-3 Sentry.


While a low-flying F-16’s radar “vision” is limited to the limited radar horizon, when datalinked with the high-flying Saab 340’s ASC 890, the F-16’s “eyes” are now effectively that of the aircraft flying at 60,000 feet that can see 100+ km behind Russian lines.

The Ukrainian Saab 360 can radar lock a low-flying incoming Russian fighter bomber, and send the targeting information via datalink to a low-flying F-16, which can then fire an AMRAAM at the fighter bomber at max range. 

40km for an AMRAAM AIM120-B, a whopping 105km for an AMRAAM AIM120-C, a mindblowing 160km for the most modern AIM120-D.  Ukraine will likely get mostly AIM120-Bs, which are available in massive stockpiles, and probably some AIM120-Cs (which have been in production since the 90s).  It may receive a small number of AIM120-Ds, but probably not many, as Western stockpiles are low and hoarded.

A single ASC 890 can provide coverage over huge swaths of the front lines.  The ASC 890 system is capable of tracking over 1000 airborne and 500 surface targets simultaneously.  It can send all that information to F-16s via datalink, while the pilot is hugging the ground in relative safety.

Ukraine’s first wave of F-16 pilots completed F-16 flight school and are undergoing final tune up training in Europe.  The first of 85 F-16s pledged to Ukraine are expected to arrive this summer, perhaps as soon as within a number of weeks.


Removing Russian glidebombs from the firepower equation could be a massive change to the ongoing balance of the conflicts—not only do 100~150 glide-bombs a day used by Russia represent a tremendous amount of firepower, it is Russia’s only consistently used guided munition available to its armed forces.

The F-16s, aided by the ASC 890, may be able to take that away from the Russian military—or at least the ability to use it with impunity, and to extract a toll in blood.

Edit: In the comments, I realized one other very important thing.  The NATO SAM systems like NASAMS and Patriot batteries Ukraine uses have Link 16 capabilities.  Meaning they also can benefit from the ASC 890 radar.

Even if Ukraine doesn't have an F-16 in range, if a NASAMS or Patriot launcher is in range, even if the SAM battery’s radar can’t see the bomber, it can radar lock and hit it with the ASC 890’s help.


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