A group of military officials are quietly pushing the Pentagon to approve sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Politico reported, citing sources.
According to a Defense Department spokesman and two other panelists, as Ukraine prepares to launch a new offensive in the spring, the campaign within the Defense Department for the fighter jets is gaining momentum.
Ukraine has yet to declare that fighter jets are its top priority, he noted, noting that the Pentagon is focused on sending Kyiv the assets it needs to fight directly.
A senior Ukrainian official said Saturday that Ukraine and its Western allies are holding accelerated talks about the possible shipment of both long-range missiles and military aircraft. One Ukrainian government adviser said the issue has been raised in Washington, but nothing too serious has been discussed yet. A third source said it could take weeks for the U.S. to decide whether to supply its own aircraft and approve the re-export of F-16s from other countries.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the story, but pointed to remarks by Deputy National Security Adviser John Feiner, who said the U.S. would be very careful to discuss fighter jets with Kyiv and its allies.
Even if the U.S. decides not to send F-16s to the air force, other Western countries have U.S.-made fighters they could supply. For example,Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the country's parliament last week that his cabinet would consider supplying F-16s if Kiev requested them. But the U.S. must approve the transfer.
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledge that Ukraine needs the new planes in the long term. But for now, some argue that Ukraine needs more traditional air defense equipment, such as Patriots and NASAMs, supplied by the U.S. and other countries, because it could take months to deliver the planes.
Sending Ukraine F-16s does not solve the problem of cruise missiles or drones right now, said a senior Defense Ministry official.
According to the Ukrainian official, Ukraine insists that the U.S. begin training its fighter pilots to fly the F-16s now, before President Joe Biden approves the delivery of the planes. But the Pentagon has no interest in the proposal, U.S. officials said. One alternative, discussed at lower levels, is to begin training Ukrainian pilots in introductory fighter tactics on the training planes.
Ukraine has also considered contracting with private companies in the United States to begin training pilots, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Officials note that the F-16s were first built in the 1980s, and the Air Force is already decommissioning some of the fleet. Sending Ukraine low-key U.S. F-22s or F-35s would be considered escalation, they said, but sending F-16s would not.
Nevertheless, the F-16s are complex systems that also require massive infrastructure and highly trained specialists to operate and maintain. Training Ukrainian maintenance specialists will probably take longer than training pilots.