Supported in part by the rapid approval of Patriot tanks and air defense systems, the export of which to Ukraine was recently banned, there is renewed optimism in Kyiv that American aircraft could be next.
"I don't think we're against it," a senior Defense Department official said of the F-16, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive debate. The person stressed that there was no final decision.
However, Ukraine has yet to make fighter jets its top priority, the official stressed, noting that the Pentagon is focused on sending Kyiv the capabilities needed for direct combat.
But the fighters could soon rise to the top. Kyiv has renewed its order for modern fighter jets in recent days, with a senior adviser to the country's defense ministry telling the media that authorities will push for aircraft from the US and European countries.
A senior Ukrainian official said on Saturday that Ukraine and its Western alliesare involved in “fast” negotiationsabout the possibility of sending long-range missiles and military aircraft.
A Ukrainian government adviser said the matter had been raised with Washington, but "nothing very serious" was yet on the table. Another person familiar with the talks between Washington and Kyiv said it could be "weeks" before the United States makes a decision on sending its own planes and authorizing the re-export of F-16s from other countries.
“If we succeed, the benefits on the battlefield will be immense. ... It's not just the F-16s - fourth-generation aircraft, that's what we want, ”Yuriy Sak, advising Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov,said Reuters.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the story, but cited comments from Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Jon Finer. He said the United States would discuss fighter jets "very carefully" with Kyiv and its allies.
"We're not excluding any particular system," Finer said Thursday on MSNBC.
"We have nothing to announce on the F-16," a Defense Department spokesman said. "As always, we will continue to consult closely with the Ukrainians and our international allies and partners on Ukraine's needs for security assistance to enable it to defend its country."
Ukraine wants modern fighter jets, the US Air Force's F-16 or F-15 or their European equivalents, the German Tornado or Swedish Gripen, to replace its fleet of Soviet-era planes. Dozens of the latest jets will be available next year as countries like Finland, Germany and the Netherlands switch to American F-35 fighters.
Despite the age of Ukraine's jet planes, kyiv's integrated air defenses have prevented Russia from dominating its skies since the February 24 invasion.
But now officials are concerned that Ukraine is running out of missiles to protect its skies. Once its arsenal is depleted, Russia's advanced fighters will be able to move and Kyiv "will not be able to compete," said the Defense Department official who took part in the discussions.
Modern fighter jets could be a solution to this problem, argue a group of military officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere. The F-16s carry air-to-air missiles capable of shooting down missiles and drones. And unlike the Patriots and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems West is currently fielding, the fighters can move quickly across an area to protect multiple targets.
"If they get [F-16] Vipers and have an active air-to-air missile with the radar that the F-16 currently has with some electronic protection, it's even game now," the Defense Department official said.
Even if the US decided not to send Air Force F-16s to other Western nationsit has american fightersthey could deliver. For example, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the Dutch parliament last week that his cabinet would try to deliver F-16s if Kyiv requests them. But the United States has to approve the transfer.
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledge Ukraine's long-term need for new aircraft. But for now, some argue that Ukraine has a greater need for more traditional air defenses, like the Patriots and NASAMs supplied by the US and other countries, because the planes can take months to arrive.
Sending F-16s to Ukraine "does not currently solve the problem of cruise missiles or drones," the senior Defense Department official said.
Great training boost
Others say the need for fighter jets is more pressing. Ukraine has created a list of up to 50 pilots willing to start training on the F-16, according to a Defense Department official and a Ukrainian official, along with three other people familiar with the discussions. These experienced English-speaking pilots have completed thousands of combat missions and can be trained in just three months, the people said.
Many of them were already training with the US military in major exercises before the invasion. In 2011 and 2018, Americans and Ukrainians participated in military exercises in the skies over Ukraine. In 2011, the Americans brought in their F-16s and taught Ukrainian pilots in their MiG-29s and Su-27s how to protect a stadium.in preparation foruntil Euro 2012.
After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the US and Ukraine remaineda second joint exercise of 2018aims to teach Ukrainian pilots tactics to defend the homeland and control the skies. American pilots used their F-15s to mimic Russian combat tactics.
Ukraine is urging the United States to start training its fighter pilots on the F-16 now before President Joe Biden authorizes delivery of the planes, according to the Ukrainian official and one of those familiar with the situation. But the Pentagon has no interest in the proposal, US officials say. An alternative, which is being discussed at lower levels, is to start training Ukrainian pilots in introductory combat tactics in training aircraft.
According to a person familiar with the matter, Ukraine has also considered hiring private US companies to start training pilots.
US military training likely won't start without a presidential decision to provide US fighters. A concern of the Biden administration throughout is that Russia's use of advanced weapons could be seen as an escalation, prompting Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons.
However, officials note that the F-16 was first built in the 1980s and the Air Force is already phasing out parts of the fleet. While sending F-22 or F-35 stealth fliers to Ukraine would count as an escalator, sending F-16s is not, they said.
"Let's be real, nuclear war will not happen because of the F-16," the Defense Department official said.
A European official agreed, saying the F-16s "cannot be considered escalators."
“It's just part of the toolkit for having conventional weapons,” the person said.
However, F-16s are complex systems that also require massive infrastructure and highly skilled technicians to operate and maintain. Training Ukrainian maintainers is likely to take longer than training pilots, and the US may need to hire contractors to provide some of that training.
support for the legislature
The F-16 supply is likely to find some support on Capitol Hill, where both Democrats and Republicans have blamed the government for not moving fast enough or for delaying certain capabilities like long-range artillery. The shipment of Russian-made MiG fighter jets to Ukraine via the Eastern European countries that still use them won bipartisan support, though an arms swap never materialized.
Reps.mike quigley(D-Ill.), co-chair of the Ukrainian Congressional Caucus, said he was "not against" supplying Kyiv with F-16s, but was broadly in favor of supplying Ukraine with "whatever works."
"You can't fight a war halfway. Not Putin. You have to take Putin armor for armor, gun for gun, because there's already an extraordinary disadvantage in troop strength," Quigley said. "Whatever works, whatever they need, send it to them.
"When I started talking about it, my message was that once addiction became a habit," he said. "Anything we ever suggested was considered escalation."
But the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep.Adam Smith(Washington) question the need to send F-16s to conflicts where fighter jets have not proven essential.
"I'm not against it," Smith said. "It's just not high on the priority list for someone focused on what [the weapons] the fight really needs right now."
He noted that the F-16, like the older MiG jets discussed last year, are vulnerable to Russian air defenses and fifth-generation fighters. Instead, Smith emphasized the need to provide ammunition for air defense batteries, long-range missiles, tanks, and armored vehicles.
"What we really need to focus on is air defense, number one," he said. And number two, artillery.