Officials: President Joe Biden’ Shift on F-16s for Ukraine Came After Months of Internal Debate

President Joe Biden’s decision to allow allies to train Ukrainian forces to operate F-16 fighter jets and eventually provide the country with the aircraft appeared to be an abrupt change in position. However, officials say it comes after months of internal debate and quiet talks with allies. 

At last week’s Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the president announced that the United States would join the F-16 coalition. Biden’s go-ahead followed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s months of pressing the West to provide his forces with American-made jets as he tried to push back Russia’s now 15-month-long continuing invasion. 

Long affecting the administration’s calculation were concerns that such a move might escalate tensions with Russia. Officials in the U.S. also argued that learning to support and fly the advanced F-16 logistically would be time-consuming and difficult. 

However, over the past three months, administration officials shifted toward the view that it may be time to provide the pilots in Ukraine with the aircraft and training needed for the country’s long-term security needs, according to three officials familiar with the discussions. 

Despite the president’s insistence in a February interview that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now” and that “I am ruling it out for now,” an internal debate was heating up. According to U.S. officials, quiet White House discussions ramped up in February around the time President Biden visited Poland and Ukraine. 

After the trip, discussions that included State Department officials, White House National Security Council, and Pentagon officials began on the pros and cons along with details of how a transfer could work, said officials. Administration officials also got into deeper consultations with allies. According to a Defense Department Official, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin heard from defense leaders from allied countries in April during a Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting who were looking for U.S. permission to train the Ukrainians on F-16s. 

Austin raised the matter during the NSC policy discussions, and there appeared to be agreement that it was time to begin training. He also raised the issue with the president before the G7 summit with a recommendation “to proceed with approving allies” to train the Ukrainians and transfer the aircraft, according to the department official. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also advocated for pushing forward with the plan during policy talks and conveyed to the president the increasing European urgency on the issue, said officials. 

Discussions with allies focused on which countries would provide training, transfer jets

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, traveled to London on May 8 for talks with German, British, and French allies on Ukraine. F-16s were high on the agenda. During the discussions, the countries focused on how to provide training and which nations would be willing to transfer jets to Ukraine. It was agreed upon that the focus would remain on training first, said an official. 

Sullivan and Biden discussed how the G7 Hiroshima summit could allow him to make a case for crucial allies on the administration’s changing stance on fighter jets. The two also discussed the president backing allies providing jets to Ukraine. 

Previously, it appeared to be a line the president did not wish to cross out of concern it could draw the West into a possible direct confrontation with Moscow. In private talks with fellow G7 leaders Friday, President Biden confirmed the U.S. would get behind a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and work together on how many would be sent and who would provide them. According to the official, NSC, State, and Pentagon officials are now developing the training plan along with the “when, where, and how to deliver F-16s” to Ukraine as part of a long-term security effort. 

U.S. officials say it will take several months to figure out the details; however, the U.S. Air Force has determined the actual training could realistically be done in around four months. The estimate is based on a visit by two Ukrainian pilots to a U.S. air base in March, where they learned about the F-16s and flight simulators. Officials say the training would take place in Europe. 

Officials with the White House have denied that the president’s decision amounted to an abrupt change. The administration has been primarily focused on providing Ukraine with weapons — including bridging equipment, artillery, air defense systems, and armored vehicles — needed for a coming counteroffensive. 

Some were concerned that supplying F-16s would use up a substantial portion of the money allocated for Ukraine. The official added that what changed is that other allies reached a point where they were willing to provide their own jets as part of a U.S.-based coalition.