Washington — Once again, the United States has succumbed to pressure from its European allies and the Ukrainian government and agreed to provide more sophisticated weapons for the Ukrainian defense. This time it is about F-16 fighter jets.
Ukraine has long said the sophisticated fighter would give it an edge in the fight against Russia’s invasion, which began more than a year ago. And this new plan opens the door for the United States to supply fourth-generation aircraft to various countries and help train pilots. President Joe Biden presented the agreement on Friday to a meeting of leaders in Hiroshima, Japan, according to US officials.
So far, however, the United States has not given any details and has said that a decision on when, how many and who will supply the F-16s will be made in the coming months while training takes place. Details about training are equally elusive. The US officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has yet been announced.
Yet, with this decision, the Biden administration took a turn for the worse after more than a year of refusing to approve any transfer of aircraft or provide training due to concerns about escalating tensions with Russia. have taken. US officials have also said that learning to fly and logistically support such an advanced aircraft would be difficult and take months.
Here’s a look at the fighters, why the US has been reluctant to provide them to Ukraine, and what is known and not yet known about the decision.
Why does Ukraine need F-16 fighter jets?
Ukraine has sought Western aircraft since early in the war, insisting that sophisticated aircraft could give it the upper hand in combat and allow it to attack Russian forces.
About a year ago, two Ukrainian fighter pilots, identified by their “Moonfish” and “Juice” call signs, met with reporters in Washington to advocate getting the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which has radar, sensors and Has missile capabilities. more advanced .
In February, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov showed a photo of a fighter jet in Brussels when asked what military aid his country needed. And earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit to Germany that he was pushing allies to form a “fighter jet alliance” that would provide Ukraine with fighter jets that would help it counter Russian air dominance. is required.
Ukraine’s leaders have argued that the F-16 is vastly superior to its current fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets. In response to those pleas, the United States has found ways to offer some advanced capabilities without providing the actual aircraft.
For example, Air Force engineers found ways to modify the HARM anti-radar air-to-surface missile so that it could be carried and fired by MiGs flown by Ukraine. The missile and its guidance system allow the jet to identify and destroy enemy ground radars.
Why has the United States protested?
Repeatedly for months, top US officials – starting with Biden – flatly refused to send F-16s to Ukraine when asked publicly. And the United States has until now refused to allow other countries to export their American Falcons to Ukraine.
Last Monday, after Zelensky reiterated his desire for the F-16 and other aircraft, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was asked whether the United States had changed its mind that the F-16 was the right approach to military assistance. There weren’t, and they said no.
Facing similar questions in recent months, Biden also refused to approve the F-16. In one case he was asked why he was opposed to sending them and he replied: “Because we must keep them here.”
US officials at the Pentagon have insisted that the military aid the United States was providing to Ukraine was based on what the country most needed to fight the war. Thus, the emphasis has been on air defense systems and the dispatch of millions of rockets, missiles and other munitions as Ukraine prepares for a spring offensive.
However, the other major reason is concern that sending fighter jets to Ukraine would anger the Russians, embolden President Vladimir Putin and possibly escalate the war.
Well, thinking about it…
Despite all the concerns, the United States has shown repeatedly during the war that it can change its mind.
At first, the United States refused to send Patriot missile batteries, long-range missiles, or tanks. And in each case, he eventually succumbed to pressure from his allies and agreed to send increasingly advanced weapons.
It is worth noting the recent changes to the M1A1 Abrams tanks. For months, the United States said the Abrams was too complex and required too much logistical support for Ukrainian troops. Under increasing pressure from European countries, who wanted to send their own tanks to Ukraine, the United States eventually agreed to send 31 Abrams to Ukraine. Training is expected to start soon.
Getting the F-16 approved has been a long and tedious process. Despite months of public insistence that there was no movement on the F-16, the Pentagon flew two Ukrainian Air Force pilots to Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson in March, Arizona, to familiarize themselves with the F-16 and learn how That’s how pilots are. trained.
US officials did not want to speak publicly about what happened, but said privately that both pilots had flown F-16 simulators and familiarized themselves with the training. Meanwhile, the US Air Force got an idea of how long it would take an experienced Ukrainian fighter pilot to learn the F-16’s most advanced systems. Officials determined that this could realistically be done in about four months if the pilots were already trained to fly their own Soviet-era fighters.
what we still don’t know
According to US officials, Biden told the leaders meeting in Japan that the US would participate in training with the F-16s and a decision on the supply of the planes would come later.
Officials acknowledged that it is not yet clear whether the United States will allow other countries to send F-16s to Ukraine, or if it will send anything at all. There is no estimate of how many more aircraft will be made available or when. The officers accept that they will not arrive in time for the upcoming spring offensive in the near future.
Officials said while the training will start soon, it is not yet clear where it will take place, how many pilots will be trained and how long it will take.
The US Air Force has two F-16 squadrons in Europe: the 31st Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base in Italy and the 52nd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. The United States also regularly sends F-16 fighters in and out of Europe on a rotating basis in small groups.