Ukraine’s breakthrough in securing heavy tanks from the U.S. and Germany has ignited talk about sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to defend the nation’s skies.
The government of Ukraine quickly renewed its calls for world-class fighter jets after it secured the victory on tanks, arguing it needed the help to defend itself against Russia.
Shortly after the U.S. announcement on tanks, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense secretary, told The Hill that Kyiv would do everything possible to secure the fighter jets.
And Dymytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted Wednesday morning that Ukraine has “new tasks ahead,” naming western fighter jets as one of them.
ArmyINFORM, an information agency for Ukraine’s ministry of defense, also published an article Wednesday suggesting that Ukrainian pilots are already training in the U.S., but there has been no public announcement on such a program.
Asked to comment on the possibility of fighter jets going to Ukraine, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on Wednesday said he had no news to share.
“Can’t blame the Ukrainians for wanting more and more systems,” Kirby said. “It’s not the first time they’ve talked about fighter jets, but I don’t have any announcements to make on that front.”
Kyiv operates a fleet of aging Soviet aircraft and has requested western, modern fighter jets since the onset of the war — but so far it has remained out of the nation’s grasp.
Supplying jets would be another escalation in terms of U.S. support for Ukraine, and the Biden administration has been careful in offering support that might intensify the conflict with Russia — particularly with the fear of nuclear weapons hovering over the war.
Yet the supplying of jets seems much less unlikely after the Biden administration made a major u-turn by agreeing to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The administration did so to convince Germany to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Germany also gave its blessing for other allies to send the German-made Leopards to Kyiv.
Germany has expressed opposition to sending fighter jets to Ukraine.
“There will be no fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine. This was made clear very early, including from the U.S. President,” Germany Chancelor Olaf Scholz said in remarks to his country’s parliament after the tanks decision. “This position has not changed at all and will not change.”
Despite such remarks, a number of experts think the supplying of jets to Ukraine by the U.S. is now likely to happen.
Ukraine has slowly secured more and more advanced weaponry from the U.S. and European allies, and they say American-made F-16s will probably follow that same course.
Tomasz Blusiewicz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said most of the concerns over sending the jets are probably over logistical questions, such as training and getting the aircraft and related systems delivered.
“I think it’s now really more down to the nitty-gritty, logistical servicing and delivery and training,” he said.
The fighter jets would make a huge difference in the skies over Ukraine in combat against Russian fighter jets, which are much more outdated than western aircraft.
Both Ukraine and Russia are currently using MiG-29 fighter jets and various different models of the Sukhois aircraft, which are extremely inferior to advanced western technology.
Those advocating for sending western aircraft to Ukraine also say the U.S. public would accept it as a means to defend Ukrainian skies and protect civilians from Russia’s relentless bombardments.
Blusiewicz explained the fighter jets, which he described as “Guardians,” would be “even more of a game-changer” for Ukraine than the battle tanks.
“In terms of air superiority, western tech … is light years away,” he said. “And for Ukrainian civilians, it now becomes more realistic to make sure these drones and rockets don’t fall on them.”
The U.S.-made F-15s and F-16s are the cream of the crop, but other advanced fighters such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Swedish Gripens and French-made Dassault Rafale would all be decisive on the battlefield.
U.S. lawmakers, most of whom have prodded the Biden administration to support more and more advanced weaponry for Kyiv, also appear to show early signs of supporting this next push for the fighter jets.
A statement released by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), as well as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) on Wednesday applauded the Biden administration for sending tanks to Ukraine but quickly pivoted to a push for fighter jets and long-range artillery systems.
“The combination of tanks, fighter aircraft, and ATACMS will help Ukraine confront the upcoming Russian offensive and go on offense in both the east and the south in an attempt to further erode Russia’s capability to continue fighting in Ukraine,” the statement read. “Let’s give the Ukrainians everything they need to win — now.”
Most of the concerns around supplying advanced weaponry before — from the HIMARS rocket launchers to the western battle tanks — revolved around escalating tensions with Russia.
But an increasing number of voices say that after the tanks, the F-16s are not likely to be seen as more of an escalation.
Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, told The Hill that Russia “defines everything as an escalation.”
“In reality I think there are some guardrails that have been established between the United States and Russia and there is a tacit understanding not to cross the lines,” she said.
At the same time, Adyintasbas said the U.S. still probably won’t supply the F-16s anytime soon.
“We know the reason why,” she added. “Escalation management.”