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How Biden got to yes on F-16s and Ukraine

This step taken in the rearview mirror, the group focused on equipping Ukraine for the long term. First step on this path: train Ukrainian pilots to pilot modern fighter planes.

The jets decision is the latest step in what has become a familiar pattern of additional military aid to Ukraine. Time and time again, the West has resisted sending advanced equipment at first, only to relent months later. This process unfolded with the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles after the full-scale invasion began last year, the Patriot missile defense system in December, the M1 Abrams tanks in January, and now again with the F-16.

A wide range of critics say the Biden administration has dragged its feet in sending urgent aid at every stage, unnecessarily prolonging the war. But administration officials say the phased approach is part of a calculated strategy to quickly equip Ukraine with the capability it needs on the battlefield and to prevent an escalation.

“It’s in the works,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters Monday, referring to the training program. “We certainly could have started earlier, but there were much higher priorities, and this is seen by some as an act of escalation on our part.”

“At every step, the United States has played a vital role in ensuring that Ukraine gets what it needs when it needs it,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Monday on CNN. “And we will continue to do so.”

This account of how the Biden administration decided to approve the training program is based on interviews with five current US officials, including two in the Department of Defense. All were granted anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

The momentum is building

The decision to support the training effort was the fruit of weeks of diplomacy and discussion. Sullivan began thinking about how to support the long-term modernization of the Ukrainian Air Force last year after visiting Kyiv and Poland in November. At the time, the question was not “if”, but “when”.

Yet in public, the president himself dismissed the prospect of Ukraine getting US F-16s in the near term, saying in February that he had ruled out sending those planes “for now.”

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, senior politician Colin Kahl delivered more bad news to Ukraine, saying senior leaders believed the fighter jets would not help Ukraine in the current fight and that it would take 18 to 24 months to train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16. .

At the time, the administration was focused on providing Ukraine with the air defense equipment it needed immediately to repel Russian drone and missile attacks, as well as the armored ground forces needed to spring counter-offensive.

In recent weeks, as the West has finished delivering the vast majority of equipment Ukraine needs for the counteroffensive, senior officials have revived the issue of fighter jets. Another factor was that the Ukrainians proved a quick study of other complex equipment, completing training on high-mobility artillery rocket systems and Patriot air defense launchers much faster than expected.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was a key driver in convincing Biden to back down on the F-16s, a US official familiar with the matter said.

The president – and other parts of government – tend to defer to the Ministry of Defense on such matters. The Pentagon, including senior military officials, has long worried about the potential for escalation on the Russian side if the West takes such a step as giving Ukraine F-16 capabilities.

But Blinken had observed over the past year that Russia rarely escalates beyond the rhetoric, even as the West has introduced more military offers to Ukraine. The foreign minister is also considering Ukraine’s long-term needs given that, even if Russia were to abandon the war now, it will still pose a threat to Kiev for the foreseeable future.

The issue of the jets was raised last month at a meeting of international defense chiefs hosted by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. During the rally, the Austin counterparts requested permission to train Ukrainians on F-16s. Austin then raised the issue with the National Security Council, and the directors “unanimously” agreed that continuing the training made sense.

Austin raised the issue directly with Biden ahead of the G-7 summit, which took place last weekend in Hiroshima, Japan, recommending that the United States proceed with the approval of allies to train Ukrainians and transfer jets.

“While these aircraft are irrelevant to this upcoming counteroffensive, Secretary Austin believed that Ukraine should have a fourth generation air capability at some point, so it made sense to continue training,” said said a DoD official.

The pieces fell into place the week of May 8, when Sullivan traveled to London for meetings ahead of the G-7 leaders’ summit. It was there that he worked out the details of a two-part approach – first training, then finally sending the jets – with officials from the UK, France and Germany. During the trip, he also had phone calls with his counterparts in the Netherlands and Poland, which operate F-16s.

“That’s where the idea came from to start with the training and then finally get them to agree that we’ll figure out when to give the planes away at a later date,” the official said.

From London, Sullivan traveled to Vienna to meet with senior Chinese official Wang Li. After returning to Washington on May 11, he informed the president that there was broad support among allies for the two-pronged approach. steps, the official said. Biden informed his counterparts he would support the plan at the G-7 leaders meeting on Friday, POLITICO first reported.

Transfers still a long way off

Kendall and other senior officials have pointed out that it will be several months before Ukraine gets F-16s. But as the war drags on, the decision to approve the training program was part of the administration’s calculation of what Ukraine’s military will look like beyond the immediate conflict.

“Ukraine is going to remain an independent nation, it’s going to need a full range of military capabilities,” Kendall said. “So it’s time to start thinking longer term about what that army might look like and what it might include.”

The first official agreed that the jets were part of the West’s long-term prospects for Ukraine. Ukraine has said it wants 40 to 50 jets.

“However this war ends, and whenever it ends, Ukraine will have one of the largest armies on the continent, and it will have a long border with Russia in the future,” he said. the manager. “So they’re going to need a modern air force for this effort no matter what.”

Prevention of escalation is always a key consideration. Speaking to reporters on Sunday at the G-7 summit, Biden pointed out that his Ukrainian counterpart had assured him that he would not use the F-16s to fly into Russian territory. But where Russian troops are on Ukrainian territory, this is normal. Sullivan noted Sunday that Crimea is part of Ukraine.

The timing of next steps and other details remain unclear, including which countries will send their F-16s or other jets for training, and which countries will ask the US to approve the transfer of US-made equipment. .

At the Pentagon, senior leaders have never objected to other countries sending their F-16s, officials said. The problem with sending planes from the US Air Force was that they were expensive and would consume a significant portion of the limited amount of money that Congress provided for aid to Ukraine, A senior DoD official told POLITICO in January.

“At the Pentagon, we focused on ‘what do they need right now?’ because we don’t have unlimited resources,” the official said. “I think the conversation about fourth generation aircraft that we have with the Ukrainians – they talked about F-16s, they talked about F-15s, they talked about F-18s. I definitely think that after a while they will have to modernize their air force. It’s not a capability that, even if we made the decision, would yield short-term results, and it would entail substantial trade-offs because it’s really expensive.

And coincidentally, the Pentagon said last week that it had overstated the value of equipment already supplied to Ukraine by around $3 billion, freeing up that money to send more weapons to Kiev.

A European official said it was “only a matter of time” before the United States approved the dispatch of the jets.

“It just seems to me to be another capability that’s now mature enough to be brought to the table,” the person said. “Each new advanced feature required some processing time. Just think about the decision-making around donating tanks.

Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.


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