The United States has approved sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands as soon as pilot training is completed, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, says in a letter seen by the Reuters news agency.
Washington will expedite the approval of transfer requests for F-16s, the letter – sent to Blinken’s counterparts in Denmark and the Netherlands – was reported to say. The US must approve the transfer of the military jets from its allies to Ukraine.
“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 said in the letter.
“It remains critical that Ukraine is able to defend itself against ongoing Russian aggression and violation of its sovereignty.”
The US president, Joe Biden, endorsed training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s in May. In addition to Denmark, a training centre was to be set up in Romania. Russia responded to the endorsement by claiming that providing F-16s to Ukraine posed a “colossal risk” to western nations.
A coalition of 11 countries is due to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 jets this month in Denmark. Denmark’s acting defence minister, Troels Poulsen, said in July that it hoped to see “results” from the training in early 2024.
The US approval comes a day after Ukraine said that based on current timelines, it would not be able to operate the jets by autumn or winter.
“It’s already obvious we won’t be able to defend Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets during this autumn and winter,” 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.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said: “Ukrainian pilots will return from the training, and the planes will come back with them.”
Blinken wrote that 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”.
On 12 July Kuleba said F-16s were expected to be operational in Ukraine – with pilots trained to fly them – by March 2024.
Ukraine had a small air force of Soviet-standard jets at the start of the war. It has actively sought the US-made F-16 fighter to help it counter Russian air superiority. US officials have privately said F-16 jets would have been of little help to Ukraine in its current counteroffensive and will not be a game-changer when they eventually arrive, given Russian air defence systems and contested skies over Ukraine.
The US has also flagged challenges in finding enough pilots with the English skills needed to complete the training, the New York Times reported. Only eight combat pilots – not enough for a squadron – had been identified so far, the paper said, citing American officials. About 20 more pilots were being sent to the UK this month, to reportedly learn the English terminology associated with the jets.
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