The Biden administration has signaled to European allies in recent weeks that the US would allow them to export F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, sources familiar with the discussions said, as the White House comes under increasing pressure from members of Congress and allies to help Ukraine procure the planes amid intensifying Russian aerial attacks.
Administration officials are not aware, however, of any formal requests by any allies to export F-16s, and State Department officials who would normally be tasked with the paperwork to approve such third-party transfers have not been told to get to work, officials said.
A handful of European countries have a supply of the US-made F-16s, including the Netherlands, which has signaled a willingness to export some of them to Ukraine. But the US would have to approve that third party transfer because of the jets’ sensitive US technology.
US lawmakers and congressional staffers have joined in the F-16 lobbying campaign, urging the administration to provide the jets so that Ukraine can establish control over its skies.
“As a bipartisan group of lawmakers, we view the transfer of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine as essential for providing Kyiv with the air support capability required to fully defend their nation against Russia’s unprovoked, illegal, and brutal invasion, and to make the territorial gains necessary to reclaim their country,” a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday that was obtained by CNN.
The issue is expected to be a subject of debate at the next NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, officials said.
Another open question is where Ukrainian pilots would train on these F-16s. A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said earlier this week that the UK and the Netherlands were looking to form an “international coalition” not only to procure the jets for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots on the 4th generation fighters, which are more advanced than the Ukrainian fighter fleet.
In March, the US hosted two Ukrainian pilots at a military base in Tucson, Arizona to evaluate their skills using flight simulators and to assess how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including F-16s. But US has no plans as of now to expand that training, a defense official told CNN, despite Congress setting aside money in the 2023 budget for such training.
US allies with F-16s could conduct training for Ukrainian fighter pilots, or the aircraft’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, could carry out training as a private contractor. But the defense official said such an arrangement would likely need some level of US participation, even if it doesn’t require an official US sign off like the transfer of US weaponry overseas.
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