The military’s top general cautioned Thursday that F-16s won’t act as a “magic weapon” for Ukraine, but the U.S. is fully behind a group of NATO allies taking the lead on training and potentially transferring the jets to Kyiv.
“The Russians have 1,000 fourth-generation fighters,” Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon following a virtual meeting of the multinational Ukraine Defense Contact Group. “If you're gonna contest Russia in the air, you're gonna need a substantial amount of fourth and fifth generation fighters, so if you look at the cost curve and do the analysis, the smartest thing to have done is exactly what we did do, which is provide a significant amount of integrated air defenses to cover the battlespace and deny the Russians the airspace.”
Milley’s comments followed similar points made this week by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who said the jets are “not going to be a dramatic game-changer” for Ukraine, though “it’s something that makes sense for them. It’s going to help them” in the long run.
Fighter jets are vastly more expensive than artillery rounds and ground vehicles, which Western allies have focused on flooding into Ukraine to help push Russian forces back in the south. Spending the money on those near-term weapons, as opposed to expensive warplanes with their complex logistical needs, has been worthwhile, Milley said.
“If you look at the F-16, 10 F-16s [cost] a billion dollars, the sustainment cost another billion dollars, so you're talking about $2 billion for 10 aircraft,” Milley said, adding that if the planes had been sent sooner, they would have eaten up the funding for those other capabilities that have put Ukraine on their front foot.
“There are no magic weapons in war, F-16s are not and neither is anything else,” he said.
Also Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that Denmark and the Netherlands are taking the lead in the joint coalition to train Ukrainian pilots on modern fighter jets. He said Norway, Belgium, Poland and Portugal have also pledged to take part in the training.
The coalition plans to train roughly 20 Ukrainian pilots initially, although the exact number will depend on the countries’ capacity to support the project, according to a UK government spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to discuss details ahead of an announcement.
Ukraine will require a pipeline of pilots to learn the fundamentals of flying who can then move up to jets, the spokesperson said. To that end, the first stage of instruction will focus on ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots, who will then be ready to learn specific airframes, such as the F-16 and others. The F-16 training will take place at a site in Europe, Defense Department officials have said.
Left unanswered were questions over who will send their F-16s or other jets to Kyiv once that training is over, and what role the U.S. will play other than greenlighting the transfer of the aircraft from third-party countries to Ukraine.
The F-16 effort is only now getting underway after President Joe Biden last week said the U.S. would support training Ukrainians on the aircraft, a dramatic reversal from the administration’s previous refusal to address the issue, saying it was a lower priority.
But with much of the aid meant to support Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive having been delivered, and with increasing missile strikes on civilian targets in Kyiv, Ukrainian leaders launched a new public pressure campaign in recent weeks, insisting that the jets would be invaluable in air defense missions.
Dozens of F-16s are in various configurations and in different states of readiness across the U.S. and Europe. As several NATO countries buy more F-35s, the older jets will become available, though they will likely need upgrades and some country-specific technologies will need to be removed, according to R. Clarke Cooper, a former head of Political-Military Affairs at the State Department and now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Based on precedent it should not be too difficult” for the individual countries, he added, since several of them have sold off their older F-16s already with Washington’s blessing.
The big question now for the NATO alliance is who has transferable planes in their squadrons or hangars that can be sent to Ukraine.
As fleets age and F-35s begin arriving in greater numbers, countries around the globe have been lining up to snap up the older F-16s. While there are jets available for Ukraine, several big potential transfers indicate there’s plenty of appetite outside of Kyiv for the fighter.
Norway recently sold 32 of its F-16s to Romania, and is waiting for Washington's OK to sell a dozen more to Draken, a private company that contracts with the Pentagon to fly training missions.
Denmark has also sold its F-16s abroad, most recently working on a deal with Colombia, and is considering doing the same with Argentina, a process that has caught the eye of Congress.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Air Force leaders this month, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said there is a danger of Argentina buying Chinese fighter planes if the U.S. doesn’t approve the potential Danish sale of F-16s.
“I think we need to be very vigilant on this,” Kelly warned. “We can counter their pitch here by facilitating the transfer of Danish F-16s to Argentina. That's a possibility. This is not just a transfer of aircraft. It has real geopolitical and strategic importance.”
Kendall replied he was aware of the issue and “it's working its way through the interagency process right now. But I think there is an understanding of the importance of it for the reasons that you said.”
The decades-old planes, while expensive, are in high demand around the globe.
“The F-16 remains a workhorse,” Cooper said. “Not only for NATO but globally, so it's not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Joe Gould and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.