Like several others interviewed for this report, one senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said that while the Pentagon’s calculus is unlikely to change soon, the debate “could be M1-.” ed,” was a reference to Biden’s latest commitment to M1 Abrams tanks after administration officials suggested for months that the sophisticated weapons would be too complex for Ukraine to maintain.
Another senior defense official acknowledged that there is growing frustration at the Pentagon among those who want to do more to help Ukraine but hedged his views on others who favor a more cautious approach. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and some of his senior staff were reluctant to approve the Abrams tanks, and weeks before, the advanced Patriot missile system, Biden finally did, this official said.
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A Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the United States and its allies provided near-term support to “sustain and enhance Ukraine’s existing air capability” and that they were consulting with Ukraine on its long-term needs. The Pentagon said in April that some allies had agreed to provide spare parts for aircraft that Ukraine already owns.
“The war remains fluid and dynamic, so our nature of support will adapt and evolve to give Ukraine the training, equipment and capabilities it needs to be effective on the battlefield,” Ryder said.
A Ukrainian request for additional fighter jets dates back nearly a year to the early weeks of the war. The country’s air force then had a few dozen Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighters, reinforced by a small number of Su-24, Su-25 and Su-27 jets. Faced with a complex array of Russian surface-to-air missiles, Ukrainian pilots have fired them sparingly, and some have been shot down.
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An assessment of the air war over Ukraine by the Royal United Services Institute in London found that Russian pilots remain “more effective and lethal” against their Ukrainian counterparts, thanks to their in-flight long-range missiles and overall superior technology. The assessment found that Ukrainian air defenses, infused with new systems from the West, have improved, prompting the Russian air force to maintain its distance from the battlefield. It also suggested that a small number of Western fighter jets could have a significant deterrent effect even in the face of Russian air defenses.
In late January, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told a meeting of US and European defense leaders in Germany that they must act quickly to supply his government with tanks, long-range missiles, air defense systems and F-16s. Days later, agreements were made to send tanks. Other requests, for now, remain unclear.
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Ukrainians want the F-16 because more than two dozen nations fly them, creating a large pool of potential donors, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula. Given the limited number of aircraft and spare parts available with the MiG-29, Ukraine will have to adopt a Western aircraft at some point, he said.
“What Ukraine needs is a game changer, and that’s air power,” said Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. “We need to stop asking what happens if we provide air power and start asking what happens if we don’t.”
Deptula assessed that while the Biden administration had begun training veteran Ukrainian pilots how to fly the F-16 last year, they were already using it in combat. He estimated that a fighter pilot trained in other aircraft could learn how to operate the platform in a matter of months.
Another retired Air Force general, Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, has favored sending F-16s to Ukraine and beginning pilot training, albeit starting with a small number of experienced pilots and assessing their performance before expanding the program.
Carlisle, chairman of the board of directors at the Stimson Center think tank, said Ukraine will face challenges in maintaining flights. But “it is not insurmountable.” To reduce such burden going forward, they recommend sending aircraft that have recently undergone significant maintenance, he said.
Other analysts are wary of the Biden administration continuing to increase its involvement in the war. Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer and senior fellow with Defense Priorities, said it was unreasonable to expect Ukrainian pilots to master the F-16 in a matter of months, and that the jets were unlikely to be a constant threat to Russian air defenses. A game changer.
“Even American F-16 pilots fight Russian air defenses,” he said. “There’s no reason to think they won’t be susceptible to it.”
Davis said he did not believe the provision of F-16s would prompt Russia to escalate its war, but if Ukraine threatened to take back the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, Moscow could take tougher measures.
“It’s a different set of rules, and if you don’t know you’re dealing with nuclear power, you’re putting us at risk,” Davis said. “It’s reckless to the highest degree.”