Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has welcomed United States President Joe Biden’s decision to support the training of Ukrainian pilots on US-made F-16 fighter jets, saying it would “greatly enhance our army in the sky”.
Describing the plans to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 jet fighters as a “historic decision”, Zelenskyy said he would discuss the details with Biden when they meet at the G7 Summit in Japan’s Hiroshima city – the latest international trip by the Ukrainian leader, which was confirmed on Saturday.
“I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima,” Zelenskyy said in a tweet. Biden told G7 leaders on Friday that Washington supports joint allied training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on US-made F-16 fighter jets, senior US officials told the Reuters news agency.
Zelenskyy has for months called for the supply of advanced fighter jets to support Ukraine’s defences against Russia’s invasion. But the Ukrainian leader had faced rejection until now from his Western allies who feared providing Ukraine with advanced offensive weapons could be met with an escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the spread of the war in Europe.
Now, as Ukraine has improved its air defences with a host of Western-supplied anti-aircraft systems and prepares to launch a counteroffensive against Russian forces, officials believe the fighter jets could become useful in Ukraine’s battle with Moscow and essential for the country’s long-term security.
Poland and Slovakia have handed over 27 older MiG-29s to Ukraine.
Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos reports that air defence experts say US-built F-16 fighter jets would offer Ukraine an edge over the Russian air force but only if combined with powerful missiles and targeting information, which the West would also have to provide.
The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his country would work with the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark “to get Ukraine the combat air capability it needs”. Denmark also said it would help train Ukrainians to pilot F-16s, the country’s defence minister said after Washington announced it would back such an initiative.
Denmark’s acting Defence Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said his country “will now be able to move forward for a collective contribution to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s”. Denmark will make a priority of working with its allies to support the scheme, he said, hailing Biden’s decision to approve the plan.
Lund Poulsen did not say if Denmark would be among those countries delivering the fighter jets to Ukraine. Denmark’s air force has some 40 F-16s, approximately 30 of which are operational. It recently began taking delivery of the more advanced F-35 fighters. Ukraine, which does not possess any Western-designed jets, says the F-16s are far more effective than the Soviet-era fighters it currently deploys.
Training on the fighters will take place in Europe and will require months to complete, US officials told the Reuters news agency. The US officials estimated the most expeditious timeframe needed for training and delivery of F-16s at approximately 18 months.
Biden’s green-lighting of F-16 training is the latest shift by the US administration as it moves to arm Ukraine with more advanced and lethal weaponry, following earlier decisions to send HIMAR rocket launcher systems, Patriots air defence systems and Abrams tanks.
The US has insisted it is sending weapons to Ukraine to defend itself and has discouraged attacks by Ukraine into Russian territory. The G7 leaders also used the first day of their summit on Friday to roll out a new wave of global sanctions on Moscow as well as plans to enhance the effectiveness of existing financial penalties meant to constrain Putin’s war effort.
“Our support for Ukraine will not waver,” the G7 leaders said in a statement released after closed-door meetings. They promised “to stand together against Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine”.
“Russia started this war and can end this war,” they said.
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