The U.S. is conscious of not escalating the Ukraine-Russia conflict and wishes to avoid being implicated by Moscow.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has indicated that European allies within the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG), a coalition of nations committed to supporting Ukraine against Russia, will spearhead an F-16 training committee to instruct Ukrainian combat pilots on using the aircraft.
Ukraine has long requested modern fighter jets to protect its skies from Russian incursions. Its existing Air Force primarily consists of older Mig-29, Su-24, Su-25, and Su-27 aircraft.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has consistently advocated for the provision of fighter jets, including in his ‘Wings for Freedom’ speech to the U.K. Parliament.
On May 25, at a Pentagon media briefing, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that Denmark and the Netherlands would lead the F-16 training committee as part of the UDCG’s efforts to provide F-16 combat aircraft training to Ukrainian pilots. More aspects of this training framework will be finalized in the “coming weeks,” with Belgium, Norway, Portugal, and Poland contributing to the F-16 training program.
A fund will be established for NATO allies and UDCG members to contribute financially to the program, even if they lack material expertise in F-16 operations or training. The ultimate goal is to supply Ukraine with fourth-generation F-16 fighters to secure its skies from Russian threats.
Several European nations currently or previously operated F-16 aircraft acquired from the U.S. Denmark, in particular, possesses a substantial fleet and is transitioning to the F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter.
While the air war over Ukraine continues, both sides’ ground-based air defense systems heavily saturate the airspace, making it unsafe for aircraft operations. Long-range missile systems, such as the U.K.’s Storm Shadow, can disrupt Russia’s air defense network within occupied Ukrainian territory.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, stated that providing ground-based air defense (GBAD) capabilities is the quickest and most cost-effective method to control airspace as the Ukraine-Russia war evolves. He emphasized the substantial time required for the F-16 to play a role and highlighted the high cost of acquiring and maintaining these fighters.
Despite nearly $40bn in military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s large-scale invasion in 2022, the U.S. has been slower than other NATO allies to provide battlefield equipment and training. The U.K., for instance, has been proactive in supplying anti-armor weapons, main battle tanks, and long-range missile capabilities.
The U.S.’s decision to allow F-16 operators overseas to establish a training framework for Ukrainian pilots is another cautious step toward supplying Ukraine’s needed platforms. Despite claims from UDCG members that equipment is being provided as requested by Kyiv, the U.S. clearly wishes to avoid escalating the conflict with Russia.
While the U.S. has played a significant role since the invasion, it has been cautious about getting involved in the conflict. It has asked Ukraine not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks on Russia and continues to maintain a balanced approach in its support.