The US will give the green light to allies that wish to supply F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine and will help train Ukrainian pilots to fly the aircraft, paving the way for one of the most significant upgrades in Kyiv’s military capabilities since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.
President Joe Biden told G7 leaders on Friday that Washington would back a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots and later equip the country’s air force with F-16s and other fourth-generation fighter jets, a US official said.
The US shift is a diplomatic victory for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will press his case for further military support when he attends the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend.
Zelenskyy hailed a “historic decision” by the White House. “This will greatly enhance our army in the sky,” he said on Twitter.
Washington views the effort as part of ensuring Ukraine has what it needs to strengthen its capabilities and defend itself over the long term. The US is unlikely to provide its own F-16s to Kyiv.
“As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” a senior administration official said.
Speaking to reporters at the G7 summit, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed suggestions that the US had shifted its policy. He said the US had decided at different stages of the conflict what weapons were most appropriate.
“We’ve reached a moment where it is time to look down the road and to say what is Ukraine going to need as part of a future course to be able to deter and defend against Russian aggression going forward,” Sullivan said. “F-16s and fourth generation fighter aircraft are part of the fix.”
Zelenskyy had been pressing his allies for months to provide modern fighter jets to bolster Ukraine’s depleted air force, which relies on ageing Soviet-built fighters that are inferior to Russia’s jets. Kyiv set its sights on the F-16, a multirole fighter built by Lockheed Martin that is used by multiple western militaries.
But Washington had long resisted the supply of F-16s, arguing that they were not a priority for Ukraine and also that they could prompt Moscow to escalate the war.
However, Ukraine’s efforts to assemble a coalition of countries willing to supply F-16s rapidly gained traction this week when Britain, France, the Netherlands and other allies said they would start training Ukrainian pilots.
Training is now expected to take place in Europe and will involve the US and potentially several other partners. The process could take several months and western jets are unlikely to take to Ukrainian skies in the immediate future, meaning they will not help support an imminent counter-offensive against Russia’s forces.
The US official said: “President Biden is sending a powerful signal of how the United States and our allies and partners are fully united in ensuring Ukraine remains sovereign, independent, and secure with the ability to defend against and deter future attacks.”
Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said the jets would be Zelenskyy’s main topic of discussion in Japan.
“The aerial platform should be part of the air defences of Ukraine,” Reznikov told the Financial Times. “Air defences is our priority number one.”
The F-16s would bolster Ukraine’s air defence capabilities and allow it to support ground operations while challenging Russia’s tactical air supremacy over the front line. Much will depend on what weapons systems western partners are willing to supply.
The Netherlands is phasing out its F-16s and could potentially be one of the biggest suppliers to Ukraine. Denmark and Belgium also have F-16s.
The Netherlands’ prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Friday welcomed the US announcement and said the “modalities will be worked out in the coming weeks”.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who spearheaded the fighter jets coalition and was the leader to pledge training for Ukrainian pilots, said his country would work together with the US and the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark “to get Ukraine the combat air capability it needs”.