At the Pentagon, pressure to send F-16s to Ukraine is accelerating

Spurred in part by the rapid approval of Patriot tanks and air defense systems – which not so long ago were banned from export to Ukraine – there is renewed optimism in Kyiv that American jets could be next.

“I don’t think we’re opposed,” a senior DoD official said of the F-16s, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive debate. The person pointed out that there was no final decision.

However, Ukraine has yet to declare fighter jets its top priority, the official stressed, noting that the Pentagon is focused on sending Kyiv the capabilities it needs for immediate combat.

But fighter jets could soon rise to the forefront. Kyiv renewed its demand for modern fighters in recent days, with a senior adviser to the country’s defense minister telling media that officials would push for jets from the United States and European countries.

A senior Ukrainian official said on Saturday that Ukraine and its Western allies were engaged in “accelerated” talks on the possible dispatch of long-range missiles and military aircraft.

A Ukrainian government adviser said the subject had been raised with Washington, but there was “nothing too serious” on the table at the moment. Another person familiar with conversations between Washington and Kyiv said it could take the United States “weeks” to make a decision on shipments of its own jets and approve the re-export of F-16s from other countries.

“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be simply immense. … It’s not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, that’s what we want,” said to Reuters Yuriy Sak, who advises Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but pointed to remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer. He said the United States would discuss fighter jets “very carefully” with Kyiv and its allies.

“We haven’t ruled out or ruled out any specific system,” Finer said on MSNBC Thursday.

“We have nothing to announce regarding the F-16s,” a DOD spokesperson said. “As always, we will continue to consult closely with Ukrainians and our international allies and partners on Ukraine’s security assistance needs to enable them to defend their country.”

Ukraine wants modern fighters – US Air Force F-16s or F-15s, or their European equivalents, the German Tornado or the Swedish Gripen – to replace its jet fleet of the era Soviet. Dozens of more modern planes will become available over the next year as countries like Finland, Germany and the Netherlands switch to American F-35 fighters.

Despite the age of Ukrainian jets, Kyiv’s built-in air defenses have kept Russia from dominating its skies since the Feb. 24 invasion.

But now officials fear Ukraine may run out of missiles to protect its skies. Once its arsenal is depleted, Russia’s advanced fighter jets will be able to move in and Kyiv “will not be able to compete,” said the DoD official involved in the talks.

Modern fighter jets could be a solution to this problem, says a group of military officials from the Pentagon and elsewhere. F-16s carry air-to-air missiles that can shoot down incoming missiles and drones. And unlike the Patriots and the national advanced surface-to-air missile systems the West is now sending, fighter jets can move quickly around an area to protect different targets.

“If they get [F-16] Vipers and they have an active air-to-air missile with the radar that the F-16 currently has with some electronic protection, now it’s a level playing field,” the DoD official said.

Even though the United States has decided not to send the Air Force F-16s, other Western nations have American-made fighters they could supply. For example, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the Dutch parliament last week that his cabinet would consider providing F-16s, if requested by Kyiv. But the United States must approve the transfer.

Senior Pentagon officials agree that Ukraine needs new planes for the long term. But for now, some say Ukraine needs more of the more traditional air defences, such as the Patriots and NASAMs that the United States and other countries provide, as jets can take months to complete. to arrive.

Sending Ukrainian F-16s “doesn’t solve the cruise missile or drone problem at this time,” the senior DoD official said.

Big boost for training

Others say the need for fighter jets is more urgent. Ukraine has identified a list of up to 50 pilots who are now ready to begin training on the F-16, according to a DoD official and a Ukrainian official, along with three other people familiar with the discussions. These seasoned pilots speak English and have thousands of combat missions under their belts, and could be trained in as little as three months, the people said.

Many of them have already trained with the US Army in major exercises before the invasion. In 2011 and 2018, Americans and Ukrainians participated in military exercises in Ukrainian skies. In 2011, the Americans brought their F-16s and taught Ukrainian pilots in their MiG-29s and Su-27s how to protect a stadium for the 2012 European Cup.

After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States and Ukraine held a second joint exercise in 2018 aimed at teaching Ukrainian pilots homeland defense tactics and controlling the skies. American pilots used their F-15s to replicate Russian fighter tactics.

Ukraine is pushing the United States to start training its fighter pilots on the F-16s now, before President Joe Biden approves the supply of the jets, according to the Ukrainian official and one of the people familiar. But there is no appetite in the Pentagon for the proposal, US officials said. An alternative being discussed at lower levels is to begin training Ukrainian pilots in introductory fighter tactics in trainer aircraft.

Ukraine has also considered contracting with private companies in the United States to start training pilots, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

It is likely that US military training would not begin without a presidential decision to provide US fighters. One concern of the Biden administration is that sending advanced weapons could be seen by Russia as an escalation, prompting Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons.

But officials point out that the F-16 was first built in the 1980s and the Air Force is already retiring parts of the fleet. While sending stealth American F-22s or F-35s to Ukraine would be considered an escalation, sending F-16s would not, they said.

“Let’s face it, a nuclear war is not going to happen on the F-16s,” the DoD official said.

A European official agreed, saying the F-16s “cannot be considered escalator”.

“It’s just part of the toolkit to have conventional weapons,” the person said.

Yet the F-16s are complex systems that also require massive infrastructure and highly skilled technicians to operate and maintain. Training Ukrainian maintainers would likely take longer than training pilots, and the United States might need to hire contractors to do some of that training.

Support for legislators

Providing F-16s is likely to win some support on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans have faulted the administration for not moving quickly enough or withholding certain capabilities, such as longer-range artillery. Sending Russian-made MiG fighters to Ukraine, via the Eastern European countries that still fly them, won bipartisan support, although an arms swap ultimately never materialized.

representing Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who co-chairs the Ukrainian Congressional Caucus, said he was “not against” supplying F-16s to Kyiv, but was broadly in favor of supplying the Kyiv. Ukraine of “whatever works”.

“You cannot fight a war halfway. Not Putin. You have to meet Putin armor for armor, weapon for weapon, because there is already an extraordinary disadvantage in troop numbers,” Quigley said. “Whatever works, whatever they need, send it to them.

“My message when I first started talking about it is that what were once vices are now a habit,” he said. “Everything we came up with was seen as an escalation.”

But the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), questioned the need to send F-16s into the conflict, where fighters have not proven essential.

“I don’t object to that,” Smith said. “It’s just not high on anyone’s priority list focusing on this. [weapons] the fight really needs right now.

He noted that the F-16s, much like older MiG jets discussed last year, would be vulnerable to Russian air defenses and fifth-generation fighters. Instead, Smith stressed the need to provide ammunition for air defense batteries, longer range missiles, tanks and armored vehicles.

“What we really need to focus on is air defense, number one,” he said. “And number two, the artillery.”


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