How Biden came to an agreement on F-16s and Ukraine

With that milestone in the rearview mirror, the group turned its attention to equipping Ukraine for the long term. The first step on that path is to train Ukrainian pilots to fly modern fighter jets.

The jet decision is the latest move in what has become a familiar pattern of increased military aid to Ukraine. Western countries initially resisted sending advanced equipment several times, but gave up after a few months. The process has unfolded with the Stinger anti-aircraft missile since the invasion began in earnest last year, the Patriot missile defense system in December, the M1 Abrams tank in January, and now again with the F-16.

A wide range of critics say the Biden administration is holding back from sending urgently needed aid at every stage, unnecessarily prolonging the war. But administration officials say the phased approach is part of a calculated strategy to quickly acquire the capabilities Ukraine needs on the battlefield and prevent escalation.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters on Monday about the training program that “this is being rigorously pursued.” “Certainly we could have started earlier, but it is a much higher priority and is seen by some as an act of escalation on our part.”

“At every step, the United States has played a key role in ensuring that Ukraine gets what it needs, when it needs it,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN on Monday. rice field. “And we will continue to do so.”

This account of how the Biden administration decided to approve the training program is based on interviews with five sitting U.S. officials, two of whom are employees of the Department of Defense. All were given anonymity to discuss internal considerations.

gain momentum

The decision to support the training effort was the product of weeks of diplomacy and debate. After visiting Kiev and Poland last November, Sullivan began thinking about how he could help with the long-term modernization of the Ukrainian Air Force. Back then, the question was not “if” but “when.”

But the president himself publicly denied the possibility of Ukraine getting an American-made F-16 in the near future, saying in February: he excluded Dispatch a jet “for the time being”.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, top policy officer Colin Carr delivered more bad news to Ukraine, with senior leaders believing that fighter jets could not help Ukraine in the current conflict, and that fighter jets could not help Ukraine. Said he would help. Takes 18-24 months Training Ukrainian pilots in F-16s.

At the time, the administration was focused on providing Ukraine with the air defenses it needed immediately to fend off Russian drone and missile attacks, as well as the armored ground forces it needed to counterattack in the spring.

In recent weeks, officials have reignited the fighter jet issue after Western powers delivered much of the equipment needed to counterattack Ukraine.Another factor is that Ukrainians Proven rapid research of other complex instrumentscompleted training on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the Patriot Air Defense Launcher much earlier than expected.

Secretary of State Anthony Brinken was a key player in persuading Mr. Biden to back down to the F-16, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The president and other parts of government tend to follow the Pentagon on such matters. Pentagon officials, including senior military officials, have long worried about possible escalation on the part of Russia if Western powers take steps such as providing Ukraine with F-16 capabilities.

But Brinken has observed over the past year that Russia rarely escalates beyond rhetoric, even as the West introduces further military contributions to Ukraine. The chief diplomat is also thinking about Ukraine’s long-term needs, considering that even if Russia renounces the war now, it will pose a threat to Kiev for the foreseeable future.

The jet issue was discussed last month at an international defense secretary’s conference hosted by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. During the rally, Austin’s counterpart asked the Ukrainian for permission to train the F-16. Austin later raised the issue with the National Security Council, and principals “unanimously” agreed that it made sense to go ahead with the exercise.

Austin raised the issue directly with Biden ahead of last weekend’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, and recommended that the United States move forward with allied approval to train Ukrainians and transfer jets.

“Those aircraft are not involved in this counterattack, but Secretary Austin is convinced that Ukraine should have fourth-generation aviation capabilities at some point, so it makes sense to go ahead with the training.” a Defense Department official said.

The pieces fell into place during the week of May 8 when Sullivan traveled to London for meetings ahead of the G7 summit. So he worked with British, French and German officials to elaborate a two-step approach, first training and then finally deploying the jets. During the trip, he also spoke by phone with officials in the Netherlands and Poland who operate F-16s.

“The idea was to start with the training and eventually have them agree to decide when to give the planes at a later date,” the official said.

Sullivan flew from London to Vienna to meet with a senior Chinese official, Wang Li. After returning to Washington on May 11, the official said, he briefed the president on the widespread support among allies for a two-step approach.Biden informed the other POLITICO was the first to report that he would endorse the plan at the G7 summit on Friday.

immigration is still far away

Kendall and other senior government officials stressed that it would be months before Ukraine introduced the F-16. But as the war dragged on, the decision to approve the training program was part of the regime’s calculations of what would become of the Ukrainian military beyond the immediate conflict.

“Ukraine will remain an independent state and will require full military capability,” Kendall said. “So it’s time to start thinking long-term about what that army would be like and what it would contain.”

Initial officials agreed that the jet is part of the West’s long-term vision for Ukraine. Ukraine needs 40-50 jets.

“But even after this war, or whenever it ends, Ukraine will have one of the largest armies on the continent and will have a long border with Russia in the future,” the official said. . “So whatever happens, we will need a modern air force for that effort.”

Escalation prevention remains an important consideration. Speaking to reporters at the G7 summit on Sunday, Biden emphasized that Ukraine had pledged not to use F-16s to fly into Russian territory. But when Russian troops are on Ukrainian territory, it is a fair decision. Sullivan pointed out on Sunday that Crimea is part of Ukraine.

Details remain unclear, including the timing of next steps, which countries will send F-16s and other fighter jets for training, and which countries will ask the United States to approve the transfer of American equipment.

At the Pentagon, senior leaders Never objected to permission from other countries Officials said they plan to send F-16s. Concerns about the U.S. Air Force jet deployment were that it would be expensive and would eat up a significant portion of the limited funding that Congress provided to aid Ukraine, a senior Pentagon official told Politico in January.

“At the Pentagon, we’ve focused on ‘what do they need right now?’ Because we don’t have infinite resources,” the official said. “I think it’s a conversation that we have with Ukrainians about fourth-generation aircraft. They’ve been talking about F-16s, F-15s, F-18s. I think we need to modernize the air force over a period of time and even if we do make a decision, it’s not a feature that can be achieved in the short term and it’s very expensive so it’s a significant trade off will occur.”

And coincidentally, the Pentagon said last week that it had overestimated the value of equipment already provided to Ukraine. about $3 billion — to release its funds to send more weapons to Kiev.

A European official said it was “just a matter of time” before the United States would approve the deployment of fighter jets.

“It seems to me that it falls into the category of another feature that is now mature enough to be viable,” said the official. “Every new advanced feature requires some processing time. Think about the decision to donate tanks.”

Nahal Tusi contributed to this report.

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