A bipartisan group of eight Senators sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday, calling for the U.S. to consider arming Ukraine with F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets.
“After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the
Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at
providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine,” reads the letter, which was organized by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ).
Sens. Tim Kaine , Martin Heinrich, Tammy Duckworth and Jacky Rosen signed onto the letter organized by their fellow Democrat, Kelly. Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ted Budd (R-NC) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) also signed on.
The senators said F-16s “would be a significant capability that could prove to be a
game changer on the battlefield” in Ukraine.
The senators went so far as to ask how quickly the western supporters could train Ukrainian pilots to operate F-16s and what aircraft would be readily available or quickly restored to operational capability if the U.S. does decide to send such fighter jets to Ukraine. They also asked Austin about helping the Ukrainians meet maintenance and sustainment needs for the aircraft should the U.S. decide to begin transfers of the multirole fighter jet.
Lockheed Martin Corp., which produces the F-16, said in January that it was prepared to backfill North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies with new F-16s if they decided to transfer their existing stocks to Ukraine.
Thus far, President Joe Biden has rejected the idea of sending F-16s to Ukraine.
NATO has been split on sending fighter jets to Ukraine. While Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have rejected the idea, leaders for France and the Netherlands have entertained the idea.
Russian officials have said the weapons systems NATO has supplied to Ukraine — such as tanks and artillery systems — already constitute direct involvement in the war. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — who now serves as deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia — has told Russian media NATO supplying fighter jets to Ukraine would be considered a “direct entry” by the alliance into a war with Russia.
While NATO has not approved transfers of F-16s to Ukraine, the eight senators said they were encouraged after a reports claimed a pair of Ukrainian pilots were given a flight skills assessment at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson and allowed to practice in an F-16 flight simulator on the base.
F-16s could help the Ukrainian side gain air superiority in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. While both sides have widely employed drones, manned aircraft have seen limited use since the initial phase of the war with the prevalence of air defense systems on both sides.
The suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) as one of the F-16’s key mission capabilities. With the ability to suppress enemy air defenses, Ukraine could theoretically employ the rest of its air forces more effectively against the Russian side.