The US has again yielded to pressure from European allies and the Ukrainian leadership and has agreed to provide more sophisticated weapons to the war effort. This time it’s all about F-16 fighter jets.
Ukraine has long begged for the sophisticated fighter to give it an advantage in the fight against the Russian invasion, now in its second year. And this new plan opens the door for several nations to supply the fourth-generation aircraft and for the US to help train the pilots. US officials said President Joe Biden presented the agreement to the meeting of world leaders in Hiroshima, Japan on Friday.
So far, however, the US has not given any details, saying that decisions on when, how many and who will deliver the F-16 will be made during training in the coming months. More detailed information on the training is also unclear. US officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss decisions that have not yet been made public.
Still, the Biden administration made a drastic backlash with that decision after more than a year refusing to authorize the plane’s handover or conduct training, fearing it could escalate tensions with Russia. US officials have also argued against the F-16, saying that learning to fly and logistically supporting such an advanced aircraft would be difficult and take months.
Here’s a look at the fighters, why the US was reluctant to deliver them to Ukraine, and what is and isn’t known about the decision.
Why does Ukraine want F-16 fighter jets?
Ukraine has been pushing for Western jets since the war began, insisting the sophisticated planes would give them a head start in the war and allow them to attack Russian forces.
Almost a year ago, two Ukrainian fighter pilots who asked to be identified by their callsigns “Moonfish” and “Juice” met with reporters in Washington to argue for the acquisition of F-16 Fighting Falcons, which have more advanced radars , sensors and missile capabilities .
In February, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov held up a picture of a fighter jet when asked in Brussels what military assistance his country needed. And earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on a visit to Germany, said he was urging allies to forge a “fighter jet coalition” that would provide Ukraine with the fighter jets it needs to counter Russian air dominance.
The Ukrainian leadership has argued that the F-16 is vastly superior to its existing fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets. In response to these requests, the US has found ways to provide some of the advanced capabilities without providing the actual jets.
For example, Air Force engineers found ways to modify the HARM air-to-surface anti-radiation missile so that it could be carried and fired by MiGs flown by Ukraine. The missile and its targeting system allow the jet to identify and destroy enemy ground radars.
Why has the US held back?
For months, senior US officials – from Biden down – had repeatedly flatly refused to send F-16s to Ukraine in response to public demand. And the US had previously refused to allow other countries to export their US-made Falcons to Ukraine.
Only on Monday, after Zelenskyy reiterated his desire for F-16s and other jets, was National Security Council spokesman John Kirby asked if the US had in any way changed its position that F-16s were not the right focus for are military aid. Kirby said, “No.”
Biden has been asked similar questions over the past few months and also declined to approve the F-16. In one case earlier this year, he was asked why he opposed sending these children, and he replied, “Because we should keep them here.”
US officials at the Pentagon have insisted that the US military aid given to Ukraine was based on what the country needed most to wage war. As such, the focus has been on deploying air defense systems and millions of rounds of rockets, missiles and other munitions – as Ukraine prepares for a much-anticipated spring offensive.
The other main reason, however, is the ongoing concern that sending fighter jets to Ukraine would anger the Russians, provoke President Vladimir Putin, and potentially escalate or widen the war.
Well, on second thought….
Despite all misgivings, the US proved time and again during the war that it can change its mind.
Early on, the United States was reluctant to send Patriot missile batteries, long-range missiles, or tanks. And in any case, it finally succumbed to pressure from the allies and agreed to the delivery of increasingly advanced weapons.
Notable was the recent turnaround in the M1A1 Abrams tanks. For months, the US had claimed that the Abrams was too complicated and required too much logistical support for Ukrainian troops. Eventually, under increasing pressure from European nations to send their own tanks to Ukraine, the US agreed to send 31 Abrams to Ukraine. The training should start soon.
F-16 certification was a long, slow process. Despite months of public insistence that the F-16s weren’t moving, in March the Pentagon brought two Ukrainian Air Force pilots to Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona for F-16 familiarization and training how pilots are trained.
US officials declined to discuss the event publicly, but privately said the two pilots flew F-16 simulators and got a feel for the training. The US Air Force, meanwhile, received intelligence on how long it would take for an experienced Ukrainian fighter pilot to learn the F-16’s more advanced systems. Officials concluded 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 DON’T KNOW YET
According to US officials, Biden told leaders in Japan that the US would participate in F-16 training and that decisions on deploying the jets would be made later.
Officials said it was still not clear whether the US would simply allow other nations to send F-16s to Ukraine, or whether the US would send some too. And there are no estimates as to how many of the jets will be deployed or when. Officials concede that it will not come in time for the expected spring offensive.
And although officials said the training will begin soon, it’s 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 air squadrons in Europe: the 31st Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy and the 52nd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany. The US also routinely sends F-16 fighter jets in and out of Europe, alternating in smaller groups.