WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden The decision to allow allies to train Ukrainian forces on how to operate F-16 fighter jets – and finally providing the planes themselves – it seemed like a sudden change of heart but it actually happened after months of internal wrangling and quiet talks with allies.
Biden made the announcement during last week’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, that the United States will join the F-16 coalition. Its green light came after President Volodymyr Zelensky He has spent months pressing the West to supply American-made planes to his forces as he tries to fend off a 15-month-old Russian invasion.
The administration’s calculations have long been that such a move would escalate tensions with Russia. US officials also argued that learning to fly and provide logistical support for the advanced F-16 would be difficult and time consuming.
But over the past three months, administration officials have shifted toward the view that now is the time to provide Ukrainian pilots with the training and aircraft needed for the country’s long-term security needs, according to three officials familiar with the deliberations who asked not to be identified to discuss internally. deliberation.
However, Biden’s change of heart seemed somewhat surprising.
In February, Biden insisted in an interview with ABC’s David Muir that Ukraine “doesn’t need the F-16s right now” and that I’m “ruling them out now.” And in March, Colin Kahl, a senior Pentagon policy official, told US lawmakers that even if the president approved the F-16s for Ukraine, it could take two years to train and equip Ukrainian pilots.
But as the administration has been publicly playing down the prospect of having F-16s for Ukraine in the near term, internal debate has raged.
Quiet White House discussions escalated in February, around the time Biden visited Ukraine and poland, According to US officials.
After the flight, discussions began involving senior officials at the White House National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department about the pros and cons and the details of how this transfer would work, the officials said. Administration officials have also consulted with allies more deeply.
In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listened to defense leaders from allied countries during a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Liaison Group who were seeking US permission to train Ukrainians on the F-16s, according to a Defense Department official not authorized to comment. publicly. Austin raised this issue during National Security Council policy discussions and there was agreement that it was time to start training.
Austin also raised the issue with Biden ahead of the G7 summit with a recommendation to “move forward with approval for allies” to train Ukrainians and move aircraft, the department official said. The officials said Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been a strong advocate for moving the plan forward during U.S. policy talks and relayed to Biden the growing European urgency on the issue.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to London on May 8 for talks with British, French and German allies over Ukraine, with F-16s high on the agenda. They got into the nitty-gritty of how to go about providing the training and which countries might be willing to fly the planes to Ukraine. According to one of the officials, it was agreed that the focus should be on training first.
Before leaving London, Sullivan spoke on the phone with counterparts from the Netherlands and Poland, both countries that own the F-16 and “will be essential to any efforts to provide the aircraft to Ukraine for any future use.” The official added that Denmark would likely provide the aircraft.
Biden and Sullivan discussed how the upcoming G7 summit in Hiroshima could provide a good opportunity for him to make the case to key allies about the administration’s changing stance on fighter jets.
They also discussed Biden’s support for allies providing planes to Ukraine – a line he previously seemed unwilling to cross out of concern that it might draw the West into what could be seen as a direct confrontation with Moscow.
Biden, in private conversations with fellow G7 leaders on Friday, confirmed that the United States would stand behind a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16s and that as things went, they would work together on who would spare them and how many. will be sent.
The official said State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council officials are now developing a plan for training and “when, where, and how to deliver the F-16s” to Ukraine as part of the long-term security effort.
US officials say it will take several months to iron out the details, but the USAF has quietly decided that the actual training could realistically take place in about four months. The Air Force based the much shorter estimate on a visit two Ukrainian pilots made to a US Air Force base in March, where they were introduced to F-16s and flight simulators. Officials say the training will take place in Europe.
White House officials bristled at the idea that Biden’s decision was a drastic change.
The administration was focused on providing Ukraine with the weapons — including air defense systems, armored vehicles, bridge equipment, and artillery — that were needed for an upcoming counterattack. There have also been concerns that sending the F-16s could eat up a significant portion of the money earmarked for Ukraine.
What had changed, the official added, was that other allies had reached a point where they were willing to provide their own aircraft as part of a US-based coalition.
The Biden administration is still considering whether to provide its F-16s directly to Ukraine. Regardless, it needed the support of other allies because the United States would not be able to provide the full fleet of aircraft that Zelensky says are necessary.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the F-16s would give Ukraine an essential long-term capability but would not be a “game-changer”.
There was an awareness that “we need to go there at some point, but we didn’t have a sense of urgency about it. I think we’re in a reasonable place to make that decision now,” Kendall told a gathering of reporters on Monday.
Another potential wrinkle in the F-16 conversation concerns Turkey.
Turkey wants to buy 40 new F-16s from the United States, but some in Congress oppose the sale until Turkey agrees to NATO membership for Sweden, which applied to join the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan He objected to Sweden’s perceived support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the far-left group DHKP-C and followers of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara claims was behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016.
Erdogan faces opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a run-off Sunday. If Erdogan wins, as expected, White House officials are increasingly hopeful that the Turkish leader will withdraw his opposition to Sweden’s membership, according to the US official.
If Erdoğan drops opposition to Sweden joining NATO, this could result in Turkey acquiring the long-awaited F-16s and could eventually add to the number of older F-16s in circulation, which could benefit Ukraine.
Associated Press White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
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