Ukraine could get F-16 fighter jets as support within Pentagon grows
An increasing number of officials within the Pentagon are calling for the US to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to help defend against Russian missile and drone attacks, it has been reported
Kyiv has turned its attention to securing modern Western fighter jets after finally getting key battle tanks last week. While the debate over whether to send fighter jets is likely to be even more contentious and may take weeks or months, support is growing within the US Defense Department, according to Politico, citing sources involved in the discussions.
“I don’t think we are opposed," a senior defence department official said, adding that no decision had been made.
Ukraine has already identified a list of experienced, English-speaking pilots who could be trained to fly F-16s in as little as three months, according to Politico.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said on Saturday that the country was engaged in "fast-track" talks with its Western allies about the possibility of getting warplanes and long-range weapons like ATACMS ballistic missiles.
Mr Podolyak said that while some of Ukraine’s Western partners maintained a “conservative” attitude to arms deliveries, "we must show [them] the real picture of this war... [and how] this will reduce security threats to the European continent".
Days earlier, Jon Finer, deputy White House national security adviser, said that the US would be discussing the idea of supplying fighter jets "very carefully" with Kyiv and its allies. "We have not ruled in or out any specific systems," he said.
More than half a dozen Western military officials and diplomats confirmed that an internal debate about supplying fighter jets was under way, with particular support from the Baltic states, Politico reported. Conversations are believed to be in the very early stages, however, and fears of escalation remain.
The F-16 is a mainstay for air forces around the world, and forms part of the militaries of nine Nato countries, including Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Last week, Ukraine finally secured US-made Abrams tanks and German-made Leopard tanks following months of bickering among allies. It quickly made clear that modern Western fighter jets would be its next priority.
“The next big hurdle will now be the fighter jets,” said Yuriy Sak, a defence adviser.
“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense… It’s not just F-16s. Fourth-generation aircraft, this is what we want.”
Other options could include US F-15s, the German Tornado or Swedish Gripen.
Ukraine's air force currently has a fleet of ageing Soviet-era fighter jets, which are mainly used for intercept missions and to attack Russian positions.
Russia, meanwhile, is using much more advanced fighters, including Su-30s and Su-35s. Earlier this month, the UK Ministry of Defence said that Russia had "almost certainly" employed the Su-57 FELON - its most advanced fifth-generation supersonic combat jet - to conduct missions against Ukraine, although it was likely avoiding flying them directly over Ukrainian territory due to the reputational and intelligence risk of losing one.
Despite its disadvantages, Ukraine has managed to prevent Russia from dominating the skies. But with its supply of missiles dwindling, officials are concerned about how long it can keep that up.
Western military support has been vital for Kyiv and has rapidly evolved during the war. Before the invasion, the idea of supplying lethal aid to Ukraine was highly controversial, but Western supplies have since shattered taboo after taboo.