By Dan Sabbagh and Julian Borger
The US has told its allies it will back a joint international effort to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 and other modern fighter jets, marking a significant boost to western support for Kyiv as it prepares a major counteroffensive.
Joe Biden has already informed fellow leaders attending a G7 summit in Japan of his decision, a senior administration official said, adding that the plan would include training “on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including F-16s, to further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian air force”.
The fourth generation category includes Britain’s Eurofighter Typhoon and France’s Mirage 2000.
“As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” the senior official said. “This training will take place outside Ukraine at sites in Europe and will require months to complete. We hope we can begin this training in the coming weeks.”
The decision represents a dramatic shift in stance by Washington, which had previously presented the supply of F16s to Ukraine as unfeasible.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted: “I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition. This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima.”
The speed of the U-turn took some allies by surprise.
There had been reports that the US would give a green light for other states to make preparations to supply western fighter jets, but even close allies did not expect Biden to support direct US involvement in a training programme.
“Things are moving really fast in Japan. Faster even than we had dared hoped,” one European diplomat said.
Yehor Cherniev, the deputy chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s national security committee, said F-16s could be in operation within four months of the start of training.
“When we will have well-trained pilots, the F-16s will be in the sky over Ukraine and will help us to move forward,” Cherniev said. “It’s important to us, not just as one more tool for our air defence system, but also to cover our infantry from the sky because without it, we would have more losses.”
Even if F-16s and other jets arrived in Ukraine by autumn, they would not be in time to support the widely anticipated spring-summer offensive Ukraine has been planning. However, the move represents a significant show of western resolve and could help consolidate any Ukrainian gains.
Cherniev said he thought Biden’s decision had been influenced by the speed at which Ukrainians had mastered the use of other sophisticated weaponry, such as the Patriot anti-aircraft system, and pressure from allies.
“It was our successful use of Patriots, a complicated system,” he said. “We have proven that we can learn much faster than the traditional programme. So we will be able to train our pilots much faster than the training programmes. Plus, there was the readiness of other countries to provide us with F-16s.”
The shift in US stance, could eventually allow countries such as the Netherlands to export the US-designed jets once pilots and ground crews have been trained.
This week the UK and the Netherlands announced they would set up a “jets coalition” aimed at providing Ukraine with the fighter planes it needs. The US initially said it was still negative on the topic.
A fresh background briefing on Friday, however, suggested it would not block third-party countries exporting the Lockheed Martin-made jets.
Cherniev pointed out that Belgium and Denmark had indicated they would supply fighter jets, and said he hoped other countries would declare their readiness in the wake of Biden’s announcement.
“It is just the start of this coalition,” he said.
Biden’s change in policy will avoid any embarrassment at the G7 summit. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is expected to visit the meeting on Sunday and is likely to repeat his “wings for freedom” request amid concerns Ukraine’s small air force will be unable to survive a long war.
Ukraine is desperate for extra airpower as it plots a counteroffensive against the Russian invasion. While its small, Soviet-standard air force remains operational, it is able to run only a dozen or so combat missions a day.
The most obvious problem with any gift of F-16s is that it would take at least three months – and more likely six to nine months – to train Ukrainian pilots and crews. Kyiv has been identifying a list of potential pilots and teaching them English so they could begin their tuition in the UK.
There are 3,000 F-16s, a jet that dates back to the late 1970s, in service in 25 countries, including several smaller European nations, such as the Netherlands. However, they are not used by the UK, France or Germany, which are able only to provide training and some related services.
The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he “welcomed announcement that the US will approve the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets”. The UK would work together with the US and the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark “to get Ukraine the combat air capability it needs”, he added.