After long ruling out providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to defend itself from Russia, the U.S. military now says the jets “clearly have a role” in the war.
The U.S. joined the F-16 coalition that includes the U.K., Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands during the recent G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan. The coalition aims to provide training to Ukrainians on the jets, but it is not clear yet who will provide the equipment. Denmark and the Netherlands will lead the training, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
On Thursday, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in a press conference that Ukraine “deserves a capable air force,” but it will take a considerable amount of time to build up an air force that’s the size, scope and scale necessary.
“There’s no magic weapons,” Milley said.
He noted that just 10 F-16 jets would cost about $2 billion — half for the cost of the fighters and half for sustainment. Russia primarily flies MiG and Sukhoi aircraft, several models of which are more advanced than many of the jets Ukraine currently flies.
“If you’re going to contest Russia in the air, you’re going to need a substantial amount of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters,” Milley said, noting Russia has about 1,000 fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
Fourth-generation fighters are typically aircraft rolled out in the 1980s, which are less advanced than the fifth-generation ones developed over the last two decades, which employ some form of stealth capability and better situational awareness.
Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets, for example, are fourth-generation, as is the F-16, while the F-22 flown by the U.S. navy and the F-35 that Canada is set to procure are fifth-generation.
Russia’s MiG-35 is sometimes described as being in between a fourth- and fifth-generation fighter and the British Ministry of Defence has said it believes Russia has also deployed its fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, against Ukraine.
Milley said that so far, Ukraine has successfully controlled its airspace from the ground, which has been the fastest, quickest and cheapest way to do so.
Senior Russian diplomats said Monday that the transfer of F-16 jets to Ukraine would raise questions over NATO’s role in the conflict, and said there is no infrastructure to operate the jets in Ukraine, or the necessary number of pilots or maintenance personnel.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg countered against that allegation Tuesday, though, saying that training Ukrainian pilots would not make NATO a party to the conflict, and noting that the alliance has ruled out a “no-fly” zone in Ukraine to avoid direct conflict with Russia.
In February, U.S. President Joe Biden said in an interview with ABC’s David Muir that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now” and that “I am ruling it out for now.”
As Ukraine’s allies mull F-16 support, Canada announced Thursday that it will be donating 43 AIM-9 air-to-air missiles to Ukraine and will send an additional five CAF medical trainers to Poland to train Ukrainian forces as part of Operation Unifier.
Milley also responded Thursday to reports that anti-Putin Russian nationals used U.S. equipment to attack Russia’s southwestern region of Belgorod.
Milley wouldn’t confirm if U.S. equipment was used, but said the deal the U.S. made with Ukraine was that its equipment cannot be used to attack Russia within its “geographic space.”
‘This is a Ukrainian war,” he said. “It’s not a war between the United States and Russia. It’s not a war between NATO and Russia.
“It is not a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.”