Ukrainian officials are urging the United States Congress to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration to send F-16 jets to Kyiv, maintaining the aircraft would increase Ukraine’s ability to target Russian military units with rockets made in the U.S., according to lawmakers.
Lobbying over the weekend took place on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference during talks between Ukrainian officials, including Democrats and Republicans from the House of Representatives and Senate, along with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“They told us that they want (F-16s) to suppress enemy air defenses so they could get their drones” past Russian front lines, said Senator Mark Kelly, former astronaut and Navy fighter combat pilot.
Last month, Biden said “no” when asked if he would approve the request from Ukraine for Lockheed-Martin-made F-16s.
Sunday, officials with the Biden administration said the U.S. should focus on providing weapons that can be used on the battlefield immediately instead of fighter jets that require considerable training.
However, they didn’t completely rule out providing F-16s.
“Discussions will continue over the course of the next few weeks and months,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on CNN.
Four delegations from the House and Senate combined in what members say is the most significant number of U.S. lawmakers to attend Europe’s top security gathering since it began in 1963 and demonstrated bipartisan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia.
The conference primarily focused on Ukraine and came only days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The sides have been locked in intense battles, primarily in the eastern Donbas region.
Kelly, other lawmakers believe support is growing in Congress for Ukraine
Kelly and three other lawmakers said they believed support was building in Congress to provide the jets to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s air force has already been adapting U.S.-made AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface rockets so that they can fire from Soviet MiG-29 jetfighters. The rockets can target electronic transmissions from surface-to-air missile units’ radar.
Ukrainians said pilots could more efficiently target Russian S-400 and S-300 air defense missile units along with AGM-88 if rockets had been fired using the F-16s’ more state-of-the-art avionics, said lawmakers.
“They contended that they need that airplane for the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) mission,” Kelly said. “They probably think they can do a better job at taking out the S-400s.”
Kelly said that while at least a year of training is required for pilots to master all capabilities of the F-16s, Ukrainian pilots could be trained to do “a limited number of things — in a few months.”
Ukraine is looking to build support on both sides of the Atlantic to supply it with advanced jetfighters that are NATO standard. Britain has also committed to providing training.
However, both sides have remained reluctant to use airpower significantly since the beginning of the conflict.
GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said U.S. lawmakers widely support training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and maintains the Biden administration would soon agree to do just that.
Graham said he didn’t worry that F-16s could escalate the war. “Don’t worry about provoking Putin; worry about beating him,” he said in an ABC interview.
Increasing calls to support Ukraine by supplying advanced jetfighters followed agreements last month by the United States, France, Britain, and Germany to provide Kyiv with modern battle tanks.
The federal government has provided around $30 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the beginning of what Russia refers to as its “special military operation.”