Bowing to Pressure, Biden Relents on F-16s to Ukraine

REUTERS/Lukasz Glowala
F-16 aircrafts fly during a NATO media event at an airbase in Malbork, Poland, March 21, 2023.

After months of U.S. insistence that Ukraine did not need F-16s to fight its war with Russia, Washington finally relented to pressure, agreeing not to stop allied nations from sending Kyiv the advanced Western fighter jets it has long desired.

Ukraine now hopes to have U.S.-made F-16s flying as early as this fall, following U.S. agreement to allow third countries to transfer the aircraft, according to an adviser to Kyiv’s Ministry of Defense.

“If we all pull our weight . . . and decisions are made quickly,” Yuri Sak said Friday. “I would estimate that end of September, early October, we could see the first F-16s flying in the Ukrainian airspace.”

While the planes will not be available for the Ukrainian counteroffensive expected to begin within weeks, the speed at which decisions are being made to supply them at all has been head-spinning.

For more than a year, getting F-16s into the skies above Ukraine for use against Russia has been Kyiv’s Holy Grail. But the Biden administration, with more than 1,000 of the planes in the U.S. arsenal and at least that many having been sold to allies and partners around the world, repeatedly said no. The United States retains the right to veto other nations transferring the planes to third countries.

Suddenly, President Biden has said yes. European allies with F-16s in their arsenals, several of which have indicated they may be willing to supply them, have been given the administration’s go-ahead to send the planes as soon as supplies and logistics are coordinated and Ukrainian pilots and mechanics can be trained to use them.

The turnaround, according to U.S., European and Ukrainian officials, is the result of steady pressure from allies, Congress and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who just completed visits to European capitals and is reportedly on his way to meet with G-7 leaders in Hiroshima, Japan, after stopping at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.

The move to supply Kyiv with advanced fighter jets comes amid concern that Ukraine’s counteroffensive may not strike the knockout blow many have been hoping for. Despite Ukraine’s brave resistance over the winter and spring, many officials in Washington and Western capitals are concerned that the war will continue this year, and perhaps beyond.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Antony Blinken was a major force within the administration in pushing to allow the allies to transfer the jets, and worked extensively with different countries within NATO to move the policy forward.

Blinken played a similar role when NATO was at an impasse over whether to provide modern tanks to Ukraine. At the time, Germany was hesitant to approve the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks – a roadblock that was overcome when Blinken pushed the White House to approve the transfer of M1 Abrams tanks, over Pentagon reluctance, making sure allies on both sides of the Atlantic were making major commitments to the war effort in tandem.

Biden informed G-7 allies of the F-16 decision at their ongoing summit in Japan.

The timeline may not be quite as rapid as Ukraine anticipates, as what are likely to be the willing suppliers – primarily northern European countries with F-16s such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Poland – need time to review their arsenals for availability and training gets underway.

Last Monday, Zelensky said during a visit to Britain that he and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had discussed the transfer of fighter jets with “very positive” results. “I see that in the closest time you will hear some, I think, very important decisions, but we have to work a little bit more on it,” Zelensky told reporters.

The next day, after Sunak met with Mark Rutte, his counterpart from the Netherlands, a British spokesperson announced that the two governments had agreed to “work to build an international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, supporting with everything from training to procuring F-16 jets.”

A spokesperson for the Dutch government declined to comment.

“I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition,” Zelensky tweeted Friday. “I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the G7 summit.”

The British do not fly F-16s, and they have their own fourth-generation fighter jet, the Tornado, on which it has already agreed to train Ukrainian pilots. Britain has repeatedly played a significant role in pushing the allies to move more quickly on lethal aid, including its decision in December to send Challenger tanks to Ukraine. Last week, the British announced they had begun supplying Ukraine with Storm Shadow cruise missiles, whose range of nearly 200 miles is more than triple that of the farthest-reaching munition the U.S. has yet transferred. The Storm Shadows are already at use on the battlefield.

Ukraine is seeking sophisticated fighter jets not for aerial dogfights with Russian planes, which rarely fly over Ukrainian territory, but to be able to fire missiles from behind its own front lines, across Russian defenses to strike command posts, supply lines and ammunition depots, according to Ukrainian officials. While Kyiv has indicated it would not turn down an offer of jets other than the F-16, it is clearly their aircraft of choice, both in the current fight and in the coming years as Ukraine builds its armed forces.

Most of the Russian missiles targeting Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure are fired from inside Russia or over the Black Sea. But the radar on Soviet-era planes currently in the Ukrainian arsenal “can see only 60 kilometers and hit targets only using rockets with 30 kilometers range” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a recent interview.

Modern Russian fighters, such as the SU-35, “can see a longer range – 200 kilometers – and hit targets with a range of more than 150 kilometers,” Reznikov said. “It’s a huge difference.”

Of all the Western fourth-generation fighters, including Tornados and the French-made Mirage, the F-16 is most desirable “because of its versatility, because of the payloads that it carries, because of the type of missiles that it is capable of carrying, because of the range of its radars, because of the range of its missiles,” Sak said.

Ukraine, he said, is asking for at least two squadrons, each with 12 planes. Ideally, it would like to receive enough for three or four squadrons. “And of course, we need pilots to be trained for these 40-50 aircraft,” Sak said. “We need the engineers, and we need to make sure that the logistics and infrastructure are in place.”

Ukrainian defense officials have long argued that the combined arms maneuvers Kyiv plans to employ in the upcoming offensive, with coordinated artillery, tanks and infantry troops, also require air cover. The Pentagon, which has been training Ukrainian troops to conduct such operations, does not disagree. But until now it has insisted, amid concerns of escalation and possible loss of sensitive technology to Russia, that Kyiv’s Soviet-era aircraft would be enough.

The United States is not planning, for the moment at least, to supply F-16s itself, although initial reluctance about sending sophisticated weapons systems, from precision missile launchers and heavy battle tanks to Patriot air defense batteries, has been gradually overcome as the war has continued.

Congress must be formally notified and given an opportunity to object to allowing the F-16 third-party transfers, a step the administration has not yet taken. The time limit for congressional response to notification is shortened, from 30 to 15 days, if the country asking for approval is a NATO member or a handful of other close defense allies.

While some lawmakers have objected to the flow of tens of billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry, support for Ukraine is still broad and deep in Congress, where some members have specifically urged Biden to move on F-16s. Paths to block the decision are limited to the passage of legislation specifically prohibiting the move, or of a veto-proof resolution of disapproval in the House and Senate.

In recent memory, the only congressional blockage of White House plans to sell or transfer arms occurred in 1986, when the Reagan administration sidestepped opposition by withdrawing a planned sale of Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia. Under the current administration, Congress has moved to attach restrictions on proposed F-16 sales to Turkey. President Donald Trump vetoed a legislative attempt to prevent arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Republicans were reluctant to give Biden credit for changing course. Responding to reports that the president had authorized U.S. training of some Ukrainian pilots, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Biden’s “delay” on the F-16s “just the latest example of our allies seizing the initiative before the U.S. does.”