Delays have caused the North Atlantic alliance to push back the expected arrival of F-16s in Ukraine until next summer. Currently, only six Ukrainian pilots are engaged in the training program. According to the Washington Post, the revised timeline reflects that Western countries see the F-16s as a part of Ukraine’s long-term defense but not necessary for the current conflict.
Initially, the White House rejected plans to send F-16s to Ukraine. In May, President Joe Biden relented and said the US would not stand in the way of its allies providing the warplanes to Ukraine. After Biden reversed course, Kiev hoped to receive F-16s sometime in Spetember.
Last month, White House officials said the US was “rushing” to get the warplanes to Ukraine, and it expected Kiev to have F-16s by the first quarter of 2024. On Friday, the Washington Post spoke with Ukrainian officials who said the timeline was deployed further until sometime next summer.
Once F-16s start arriving in Ukraine, the impact could be limited by the number of pilots the West is training. According to two unnamed Ukrainian sources, only six pilots are enrolled in the first round of training, with two reserved candidates. The first step the pilots will undergo is four months of English lessons in the UK.
The pilots will not begin combat training until January, a process expected to last at least six months. One Ukrainian official told the Post that the West is “dragging out” the process of providing F-16s to Kiev.
The Post said the delay reflects the divide between Kiev and its Western backers. Washington and some countries who have agreed to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s view the plane as part of Ukraine’s long-term defensive needs. Brig. The Pentagon’s press secretary, Gen. Patrick Ryder, said, “F-16s are about our long-term commitment to Ukraine and are a capability that won’t be relevant to the current counteroffensive.”
However, Kiev and other European countries have consistently complained that Ukraine lacks air power and has been pushed by NATO into launching a counteroffensive without a crucial military tool. “It “pi**es me off” when some in the West complain about the slow start and progress of the push against Russian forces,” Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny said last month. “They are needed because there is no other way. Because the enemy is using a different generation of aviation.”
The White House maintains it gave Kiev all the weapons it needed to launch the counter-offensive. However, the Post notes that Ukrainian ground forces attempting to retake territory have been attacked by low-flying Russian helicopters. Additionally, American officials admitted to the Wall Street Journal that Kiev lacked the warplanes and artillery needed to launch a successful counteroffensive. Still, Washington hoped Ukrainian courage would overcome the entrenched Russian defenses.
Sending F-16s to Ukraine will mark a significant escalation in Washington’s proxy war against Russia. The Kremlin says it will view the warplanes as a nuclear threat. “We have informed the nuclear powers, the United States, Britain and France, that Russia cannot ignore the ability of these aircraft to carry nuclear weapons. No amount of assurances will help here,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.