In a notable policy realignment, President Joe Biden has succumbed to pressure from his Ukrainian peer, Volodymyr Zelensky, thus paving the way for the potential provision of American F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. This decision, following months of unyielding refusals from Washington, marks a dramatic U-turn that might also prompt Germany to reassess its position. It is an intricate geopolitical situation, bound to invoke strong reactions from Russia, who could interpret this as dangerous NATO involvement and a significant escalation.
The current plan involves the United States and a coalition of nations supporting the training of Ukrainian pilots on Western-manufactured combat aircraft. However, the decision on who will ultimately supply the jets, and in what quantity, remains uncertain. The only aspect that is clear for now is that this training will take place in locations across Europe, beginning in the forthcoming weeks and spanning several months.
So, has the US made a firm commitment to supply F-16s? Not at all. The US government has left this deliberately ambiguous. However, it has cleared the way for other countries to potentially supply Ukraine with F-16s from their own reserves. While Biden has indicated a general approval, the specifics will only be decided in due course. Furthermore, it is conceivable that the US may ultimately decide not to provide any aircraft themselves.
As the producer of the F-16s, American firm Lockheed Martin puts the US in a central role. It gives the US considerable influence over whether F-16s can be exported from the inventories of allied nations due to the sensitive technology integrated into these jets. As a result, without explicit US consent, European partners are unable to act independently.
But why did the US hesitate for so long? There were concerns that Western fighter jets might potentially be used for attacks over Russian territory, leading to a further escalation of the war beyond Ukraine. However, Zelensky clarified on Sunday that his country’s intended counteroffensive does not target areas within Russia’s borders but rather seeks to liberate territories Kiev considers to be located within Ukraine and occupied by Russia. There were also issues around the extensive effort required to train the pilots and technicians who maintain the jets. Additionally, the high cost of F-16s could limit the financial capacity for other weapon systems.
Why did Biden choose to yield now? Increasing pressure from Europe, an essential ally, was a significant factor. The timing of this decision could also be linked to Zelensky’s surprise visit to the G7 summit in Japan. In the eyes of the collective West, it would have been ill-advised to send him home empty-handed after such a high-profile meeting.
How do the Americans themselves justify this decision? Officially, the US administration is denying any U-turn. Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, stated that the timing for F-16s had previously not been right. He maintained that decisions regarding arms supplies to Kiev have always been based on the needs dictated by the war situation. He assured that the US has so far delivered all promised aid. Now, he said, the focus is on what the Ukrainian military would need in the long term to deter Russia, hence the consideration of fighter jets.
Sullivan said in at the G7 summit in Japan (in Hiroshima, ironically) that the US would not object if its allies passed these planes on to Ukraine. However, he associated this with the expectation that a delivery of US aircraft to Ukraine could only take place in at least half a year. That is approximately how long the training of the pilots on the aircraft and its electronics takes. A German military expert was quoted by Ukrainian agencies as saying that the pilots needed six months to be able to fly the F-16; training on the weapons would take a few more months. Whether this is literally true or not, it is clear that the US combat aircraft may not be available to Ukraine for its announced offensive just yet.
The Ukrainian Air Force Command’s spokesman, Yury Ignat, recently trumpeted on Ukraine’s Espreso TV that the introduction of F-16 fighter jets would turn the tide in the fight between Moscow and Kiev. He confidently proclaimed that if the Ukrainians could get their hands on these American jets, victory would be theirs.
Kiev has long made it clear to its Western cheerleaders that its current air defence systems were failing to fully shield Ukraine from Russia’s air assaults. The size of Ukraine’s territory – the length of its state border, and the vast frontline stretching over 2,500 kilometers, from Ukraine’s border with Belarus, its Black Sea coasts, to the border with the Transnistria region – could not be covered adequately by the current defence systems.
Ignoring the monumental task of defending such a large territory, Ignat insisted the F-16s would become an integral part of the air defences, deployed in areas neglected by ground-based systems.
There was also a bit of a moan about the inefficiency of Soviet-era jets in dealing with Russian UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and cruise missiles. With a spark of excitement, he talked about the US-made jets’ role in their offence strategies and how these new kids on the block would give a much-needed boost to the anti-radar HARM missiles and JDAM precision-guided munitions, generously gifted by the West.
Going on the offensive, Ignat mentioned plans to use the F-16s to target the command centres and logistical networks of the Russian forces. The hope is this would help Kiev swiftly reclaim territories it views as occupied by Russia.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, did not mince her words. She accused the US of starting a hybrid war against the whole region and of using Ukraine as a pawn in their quest for global hegemony.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, suggested early Monday that supplying F-16 fighter jets to Kiev could imply NATO’s participation in the ongoing conflict. Antonov highlighted the lack of necessary infrastructure in Ukraine for operating the F-16s and the shortage of trained pilots and maintenance staff. He further posed a speculative scenario, querying the potential consequences should these American jets be deployed from NATO airfields under the control of foreign ‘volunteers’.
Every month Kiev pushes the line that a new magical weapon is what they need to “win.”
The USA having to either provide pilots or some other NATO country having to do so is quite sinister.
I think Russia will sooner rather than later actually have to enforce one of these redlines… and this is a great place to start.
It seems like these will also have to be based out of Poland or else they are easy targets for Russian missiles.
A greater war may be approaching fast.
HIMARS, Leopard 2s, Patriot Systems, and on and on.
The hustle continues.
It stinks of just another way for the US military-industrial complex to make more money off of this war before it ends.
How would Russia respond to air strikes on Crimea from American made and maybe even piloted jets?
They are saying the F-16s will be used for air defense. Is this to shoot down drones?
This guy seems completely out of his mind. Are any of the Kiev leaders even a little professional or serious?
Losing air superiority would be a possible game changer. But can they keep these in the air against Russian air defenses?
What happens when NATO pilots are captured or killed?
Foreign mercs will likely have it very hard if captured after attacking inside Russian borders.