What ‘No’ on F-16 Fighter Jets Might Mean for Ukraine

WASHINGTON — For Ukraine, the United States and their NATO allies, the playbook has now been standardized.

First, Kyiv calls for an advanced weapons system. The Biden administration says no, quietly suggesting that Ukraine could get the same type of weapon from its European neighbors, in half the time.

But NATO countries in Europe, still smarting from President Donald J. Trump’s desire to break the alliance, refuse to commit to sending anything to Ukraine that would provoke Russia unless the United States is there with them. So, after months of wavering, the Biden administration says yes, and the door opens for more guns.

The same thing happened with air defense systems, when President Biden decided at the end of December to send a Patriot battery to Ukraine, and Germany and the Netherlands announced that they would also send Patriot launchers and missiles. The same was true of armored fighting vehicles, with France and Germany opening their pantries once the Biden administration signaled in January that it would ship Bradleys. The same was true of tanks, as Germany agreed to send Leopard 2 tanks once the Biden administration agreed to send the American M1A2 Abrams.

Now it’s fighter jets, the latest item on Ukraine’s acquisition wish list. Kyiv has ordered dozens of F-16s, the single-engine fighter jet developed in the 1970s by General Dynamics and the US Air Force. Nearly 50 years later, US Air Force pilots still fly the F-16. , as are pilots in a host of US partner countries.

Ukraine wants them, both to provide air support to troops seeking to retake cities and towns in the east and south where Russian troops have entrenched, and to protect their cities and towns from Moscow attack planes.

Following the usual script, the Biden administration says no, but officials are quick to say, privately, that the no is probably temporary.

After Mr. Biden said “no” when a reporter asked Monday if the United States would provide F-16 fighters to Ukraine, senior officials quickly followed up on subsequent talks. Several said Biden’s “no” did not prevent the administration from later deciding to provide F-16s or, more likely, reaching an agreement that would allow another country to send its own US-made F-16s to Ukraine.

“We constantly talk to the Ukrainians, and we constantly talk to our allies and partners about the capabilities they need,” John F. Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters on Tuesday.

In a post on his Telegram channel on Monday, Andriy Yermak, one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s top advisers, said that “work to obtain F-16 fighters is ongoing,” adding that Ukraine had seen “positive signs of Poland, which is ready to transfer them in coordination with NATO.”

But US and European officials say such transfers are more likely to come from Denmark or the Netherlands. the dutch cabinet consider an application from Kyiv for F-16s with an “open mind,” Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra was quoted as saying by NL Times last month.

The Netherlands has around 40 F-16s and is transitioning to the more advanced F-35 fighter (also made by Lockheed Martin), so sending some of its F-16s to Ukraine would make sense, US officials said.

The US government must approve sales or transfers of F-16s from partner countries to third countries, meaning any NATO member who wants to send their US-made fighter jets to Ukraine must first get light green of the Biden administration.

That permission, two officials said, could help reassure NATO countries that are worried about being singled out by Russia for sending the advanced fighter jets to Ukraine.

“We have a pattern; if we say we will provide categories of equipment, then our allies will,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Ukraine during the Obama administration. “They seem to be very afraid of Russia directing its anger against any NATO country.”

In the case of the Abrams tanks, just the announcement last week that the US would send them was enough to unlock the German Leopard 2 tanks, though the Pentagon says the Abrams probably won’t hit the battlefield for months, if not years. . Britain’s earlier promise to send its Challenger tanks was not enough to attract the rest of Europe, officials acknowledge.

For the time being, the Biden administration views advanced fighter jets as something that the modern Ukrainian Air Force will no doubt get directly from the United States, but in the future. Pentagon officials say they want to prioritize weapons that can help Kyiv right now. The Biden administration is preparing a new arms package for Ukraine, administration officials said this week. The $2.2 billion package is expected to include longer-range rockets, but they most likely won’t be delivered for several months, if not years.

Bigger and better weapons that are publicly promised but not immediately delivered are still meant, US officials said, to send a message to Russia. A Ukrainian army that is fortified with fighter jets and tanks in perhaps a year could mount counter-offensives to retake Moscow-occupied territory.

Officials say the top priorities for Ukraine right now are air defense systems, artillery, and then armored and mechanized systems.

But Ukraine, whose pilots fly Soviet-era planes including MiG-29s, has insisted it wants Western fighter jets.

Because so many US allies have F-16s, the supply chain for advanced fighters is well supported around the world, which would make it easier for Ukraine to sustain, said Michael Fantini, a retired Maj. Gen. who flew F-16s during the war. Iraq War He called the fighter “the most maneuverable ever built, with the exception of the F-22,” another fighter jet.

He said the plane could make a “significant contribution” on battlefields and in the skies over Ukraine.

Yurii Ihnat, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, told a briefing last week that it would take Ukrainian pilots a “couple of weeks” to learn how to fly the fighters, but “about six months” to master how to fight with the plane. .

President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday that his country had not ruled out sending fighter jets to Ukraine, but laid out several conditions. Among them: that providing such equipment would not lead to an escalation of tensions or be used “to touch Russian soil”, Macron said.

US officials say that after a year of warning Ukrainians not to fire Western weapons at Russia, the Ukrainian military has earned their trust.