Denmark and the Netherlands have said the US has cleared the way to allow F-16 fighters to be re-exported to Ukraine after some of its pilots are trained to fly them, helping restore momentum to a process that appeared to be stalling.
Ministers from both countries, the leaders of an international coalition to help Ukraine obtain the jets, thanked Washington for the green light, although it remains unclear when any F-16 transfers could take place.
Kajsa Ollongren, the Dutch defence minister, said she welcomed the US decision “to clear the way for delivery of F-16 jets to Ukraine”, which would allow the coalition “to follow through on the training of Ukrainian pilots”.
Denmark’s defence minister said donating F-16 jets was “a natural next step” after pilot training was completed. “We are discussing it with close allies, and I expect we will soon be able to be more concrete about that,” Jakob Ellemann-Jensen added.
A week ago the Washington Post reported that an initial group of six pilots was not expected to complete F-16s training by the next summer, meaning Russia would retain a dominant position in the air war well into next year.
The start of the training programme was repeatedly delayed, with the Dutch and Danish comments indicating the absence of formal US approval was among the factors holding back the start of the exercise.
Ukraine had resigned itself to a long delay. “It’s already obvious we won’t be able to defend Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets during this autumn and winter,” the Ukraine air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat told Ukrainian television late on Wednesday.
“We had big hopes for this plane, that it will become part of air defence, able to protect us from Russia’s missiles and drones terrorism,” he added.
US officials had overnight indicated that Washington would formally approve re-exports of the jets, now made in the country, in a guarantee letter sent by Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, to Denmark and the Netherlands.
“I am writing to express the United States’ full support for both the transfer of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine and for the training of Ukrainian pilots by qualified F-16 instructors,” Blinken wrote. “It remains critical that Ukraine is able to defend itself against ongoing Russian aggression and violation of its sovereignty.”
Blinken said the approval of the requests would allow Ukraine to take “full advantage of its new capabilities as soon as the first set of pilots complete their training”.
It is unclear if the US approval can now lead to an acceleration. Another barrier to progress has been a perceived requirement to teach the pilots, and the related ground crews, military aviation terminology in English.
Previously the Washington Post reported that the pilots, despite being English speakers, would have to study for a further four months in the UK with the crews before the training programme could be begin.
Ukraine mounted a high-profile international lobbying effort to obtain the jets from the start of the war, eventually overcoming US reluctance in May, when the president, Joe Biden, endorsed training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s. At that time it was hoped training would begin “in the coming weeks”.
Ukraine currently operates a small air force based on Soviet standard aircraft, but it is not a match for its larger Russian equivalent. Its limited numbers means it can only run a handful of missions each day, and it struggles to counter Russian dominance of the air space close near the frontline.
Source: The Guardian