09:18 15 Mar 2023

Senators: F-16s a "game changer" that Pentagon "needs to take a hard look at providing" to Ukraine

A group of US senators from both parties is pressuring the head of the Department of Defense to provide more information about what is needed to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Politico reports, citing a letter from eight senators to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, that the organizer of the letter was Senator Mark Kelly (Arizona).

The senators asked Austin to provide them with an assessment of the various factors necessary for a successful transfer of F-16s to Ukraine by the end of the week.

Among the questions asked by the legislators are:

  • how highly Ukrainian officials rate fighter jets when they make requests for weapons,
  • where the F-16 fighters might come from if approved – from new production or existing stockpiles.

They also inquired about the military's assessment of the F-16's impact on the conflict and how quickly Ukrainian pilots can learn to fly fighter jets.

In the letter, the senators write that the conflict between russia and Ukraine is "now at a critical juncture." Hence, they argue that the F-16 fighter jets could give Kyiv an advantage as the full-tilt russian invasion is now in its second year.

"After speaking with US, Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the US needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine," the senators wrote. "This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield."

A group of senators welcomed the news that two Ukrainian pilots have come to the United States for a combat skills assessment at Tucson's Morris Air National Guard Base, which they called a "critical step in gauging" their readiness to fly F-16s.

The letter was also signed by Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, and Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Ted Budd of North Carolina.

A bipartisan effort is to convince the Biden administration to send the F-16s or at least help other countries to send them to Ukraine. They backed up their demands with assessments such as that of General Christopher Cavoli, the commander-in-chief of the US and NATO forces in Europe.

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Cavoli told lawmakers behind closed doors that providing modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles, could help bolster Ukraine's defense capabilities.

But senior civilian officials, including Biden and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, said the fighter jets are not an urgent need on the battlefield.

Pentagon chief of policy Colin Kahl also supported the administration's position, telling the House Armed Services Committee last month that the most optimistic delivery date for the aging F-16s is about 18 months. At the same time, new aircraft can take three to six years to produce.

"It is a priority for the Ukrainians, but it's not one of their top three priorities," Kahl testified. "Their top priorities are air defense systems … artillery and fires, which we've talked about, and armor and mechanized systems."

The Senate letter follows a bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives, led by Maine Democrat Jared Golden, to persuade Biden to send F-16s or similar aircraft to Kyiv.

The day before, the United States once again noted that it would not oppose the decision of other countries to transfer combat aircraft to Ukraine.

The President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, previously stated that Warsaw was ready to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine as part of an international coalition. He expressed his belief that Ukraine will receive F-16 aircraft in the future.

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