A new effort by Britain and the Netherlands to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets has exposed the latest rift among Western allies who have repeatedly bickered over sending powerful weapons of war, once again pitting the reluctant United States against some of its closest neighbors. European partners.
Several European allies are willing to hand over their F-16s to Ukraine. But the Biden administration, which must approve any transfer of the American-made aircraft, is still unconvinced that Ukraine needs the expensive jets, which are a staple of many modern military arsenals.
Washington’s skepticism is so great that Kyiv’s pilots are currently not even allowed to train on the F-16s owned by European states, according to a senior Ukrainian official who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.
US reluctance to allow training would severely limit a proposed new European coalition to help Ukraine obtain and fly F-16s – whether in the current conflict or to protect against future Moscow aggression after it Westen has shifted his focus from the 15-month war.
“What’s really important here is to make it clear to Russia that we as nations have no philosophical or principled objection to providing Ukraine with capabilities it needs, depending on what happens on the battlefield,” the British defense minister said. , Ben Wallace, Wednesday. in Berlin. He added, “It’s up to the White House to decide whether to release that technology.”
In Washington, a senior US official said the Biden administration was still reluctant to send Ukraine its own F-16s, in part because the multimillion-dollar price tag on the plane would eat up too much of an already dwindling pot of war funding. Instead, the US official said, the government is more concerned with speeding up other US weapons to Ukraine in time for a counter-offensive against Russia, and that the jets will not reach the battlefield for at least months – presumably long after that fight. had begun.
The US official also spoke on condition of anonymity, as did four other senior Western officials in Washington and Europe who were interviewed for this story.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Biden administration has resisted the Allies’ demands to send more powerful and advanced weapons to Ukraine. In any case, it eventually reversed itself, allowing the transfer of powerful HIMARS missile launchers, Abrams tanks and Patriot air defense missiles.
And the US official did not rule out the possibility that the Biden administration will issue re-export licenses to European militaries, allowing them to transfer their F-16s to Ukraine. Later on Tuesday, after Britain and the Netherlands announced their so-called “fighter coalition,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra spoke by phone to discuss Ukraine and other issues.
Mr Hoekstra said on Wednesday that “we have not yet reached a solution” in what another senior European diplomat described as a slow and difficult discussion.
“When we are ready to cross that bridge and ready to communicate this, we will,” said Mr Hoekstra.
The Netherlands is one of four European countries that the senior Ukrainian official said have quietly indicated they are ready to send F-16s to Kiev. Its fleet, along with those of Denmark and Belgium, could provide at least 125 combat-ready F-16s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank that assesses military stockpiles worldwide. Norway, which last year retired its unspecified number of F-16s in a switch to the more advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is also ready to contribute, the Ukrainian official said.
Kiev is asking — for now, at least — only between 24 and 36, the official said.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the United Kingdom would begin training Ukrainian pilots from this summer as part of a plan “with other countries to provide F-16 jets.” His announcement, wrapped in a new package of military aid, came during a visit to London by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
However, without explicit US approvals, training will likely be limited to what the senior Ukrainian official described as mere technical language and tactical lessons that pilots would learn without ever touching an F-16.
With its powerful radar that can see targets hundreds of miles away and modern missiles, the F-16 contains classified and other highly restricted systems that the United States does not want to see duplicated or fall into hostile hands. It’s one of the weapons classes that even allies must get “release” approval from the Pentagon just to discuss the technology with outside partners, such as Ukraine, a senior Defense Department official said.
Last month, Poland and Slovakia said they had sent Ukraine more than 20 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets ahead of the counter-offensive. But Ukraine’s leaders have said the F-16 is better equipped to protect against airstrikes and evade Russia’s own fighter jets.
The Biden administration has often resisted sending more powerful weapons to Ukraine for fear of an escalation of attacks by Moscow. Concerns have died down recently as it is no longer clear, without nuclear weapons, how Russia could escalate further.
“Giving Ukraine F-16s will deter rather than ‘provoke’ Russia,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. insisted last month. “Time to take this step.”
Douglas Barrie, an IISS military expert, said it would be surprising if the Biden administration had not given “at least some kind of tacit nod and wink” of approval for the European plan to help procure F- 16s to Ukraine and its pilots before moving on.
He said the fighter jets could play a key role in Ukraine’s defense, including by “continuing to deny the Russians the kind of air superiority they have been unable to establish”. Whether the F-16s can be used to attack Russian positions will depend on the kind of specific weapon package Western allies agree to equip them with.
Experienced Ukrainian fighter pilots already proficient in Soviet-era fighter jets could be trained to fly F-16s in “months rather than weeks, but possibly not as many months,” Barrie said. But he warned that any intensive training in the near future could take pilots out of war at a time when Ukraine needs as much of its air force ready to fly as possible.
“You don’t want to have some sort of capacity drop in the middle of a war,” Mr. Barrie said.
But Ukrainian officials say they are more concerned about a different kind of distraction — that of Western support as war fatigue sets in and funding dries up. They are particularly concerned about the United States, where some Republicans, including candidates for next year’s presidential election, are already wondering how much more support the country should provide.
That may also be in the minds of a group of 14 Democrats and Republicans in Congress who on Wednesday urged President Biden to unlock the F-16s without delay.
“As we saw with our allies’ initial hesitation to supply tanks to Ukraine, U.S. leadership is critical to providing Kiev with additional resources and new capabilities,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the White House that was co-ordinated. by Representative Jared Golden. a Maine Democrat.
“The supply of F-16 fighters to Ukraine is essential to effectively end this war on just terms,” they wrote.
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.