Biden Drops Refusal To Give Ukraine F-16s Under Pressure
Biden told other Group of Seven leaders of his intention to endorse the initiative at their summit in Japan.
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden dropped his reluctance to sending F-16s to Ukraine after months of pressure from Kyiv and allied governments, announcing Friday that the US would support efforts to train Ukrainian pilots to use the fighter jet.
Biden told other Group of Seven leaders of his intention to endorse the initiative at their summit in Japan. The training program - which requires US permission because the jet is American-made — should begin within weeks and take place at sites in Europe outside Ukraine, according to a senior administration official. Allies will decide later the number of jets to send or who will provide them.
The decision marks a significant turning point for the Biden administration, which had insisted for months that Ukraine had far more pressing military needs, such as artillery, missile defense and armored vehicles to repel Russian forces. It also followed a now-familiar pattern in which Biden initially resisted providing a system — be it Stinger missiles, Patriot missile-defense batteries or Abrams tanks — only to reverse course later on.
Members of Congress have pressed the Biden administration since the start of the war to help beef up Ukraine’s air defenses, including by supplying fighter jets and other types of air support. The administration had resisted those entreaties when it comes to F-16 fighters, arguing it would take several months to train Ukrainian pilots on the jets and even longer to deliver them.
The administration’s views on the matter have evolved over time, with senior military representatives raising the prospect of sending fighter jets to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who is expected to make an appearance later this week at the G-7 — has been asking for F-16s for months, saying they will play a crucial role in defending against Russian attacks and are far superior to any jets in Russia’s air force.
Read more: Ukraine Needs More Than a $30 Billion Arsenal to Strike Back
The Ukrainian leader even referenced the idea when he addressed a joint session of Congress late last year, portraying the issue as a symbol of America’s commitment to the country.
“I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition,” Zelenskiy said in a tweet Friday. “This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, standing alongside Zelenskiy and Belgian Premier Alexander De Croo in The Hague on May 4, echoed the Ukrainian president’s language, saying there are “no taboos” against sending fighter jets to Ukraine. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to help train Ukrainian pilots and on Monday backed a budding coalition of countries willing to send Western-made jets. His government said there were no plans to send its own aircraft, as Ukraine is pursuing the F-16, which the UK does not have.
The US had also worried that sending F-16s would soak up too much of the money Congress appropriated to send weapons to Ukraine. Biden was also concerned that providing F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., could prove provocative or escalate the war with Russia.
But allied nations including the UK and the Netherlands had amped up pressure to provide the jet. That’s been accompanied by efforts to get the US to permit Ukrainian pilots to train on the aircraft.
The likeliest scenario now is that the US will not send Ukraine F-16s but rely on other countries to do so. Possibilities include the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. Others such as Norway have begun to retire F-16s in anticipation of getting the more advanced F-35.
Poland and Slovakia previously provided Ukraine with Russian-made MiG jets, but Zelenskiy and other officials have continued to call for the more-capable F-16s.
Once the US green-lights countries sending their jets to Ukraine, the State Department could facilitate a third-party transfer, which theoretically would move much faster than a traditional sale, given that the aircraft would not need to be built from scratch. That timeline could be extended depending on the age, version and the condition of the jets, which could require retrofitting or removal of country-specific or restricted technology.
There are potential drawbacks to sending used F-16s to Ukraine, the Congressional Research Service said in a March report. It said older aircraft have a limited service life.
“In addition, older aircraft tend to have higher operating costs, potentially requiring additional U.S. financial assistance to maintain flight operations,” the report said.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Biden to use his G-7 trip to Japan to work with allies on providing Ukraine with F-16s, cluster munitions and longer-range weapons, including cruise missiles. The Kentucky Republican has repeatedly accused the Biden administration of dithering and delays in providing weapons, and has argued for an increase in defense spending to deal with threats from Russia and China.
--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis.
(Updates with Zelenskiy tweet in 7th paragraph.)
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