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Opinion Facing a long war, Ukraine needs Western fighter jets

A U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter flies in the Singapore Airshow in Singapore. (Jonathan Drake/Bloomberg)
4 min

Even as the Biden administration has secured tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to supply Ukraine’s military with the weapons it needs to fight bigger, stronger Russian forces, the U.S. response has lacked long-term thinking in a war that will not end soon.

A prime example is Washington’s resistance to preparing Ukraine’s air force to fly advanced U.S. fighter jets, a component of defense strategy it will surely need. Supplying Kyiv with U.S.-made F-16s, top-notch fighter jets used for decades by military pilots in this country as well as a number of NATO nations, would take time — well over a year given the intensive training needed not only for aviators but also for mechanics and other logistical personnel. It is time to start. But Mr. Biden has said no even as top defense officials and experts here and in Europe acknowledge the necessity.

Several NATO allies are more clear-eyed. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has approved advanced fighter jet training for Ukrainian pilots. Both Poland and the Netherlands, whose air arsenals include F-16s, have signaled they are prepared to do the same or more. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he is considering providing Kyiv with fighter jets. Yet without leadership from Washington, nothing much is likely to happen.

That’s been the pattern since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, most notably with the supply of top-of-the-line battle tanks. Ukraine needed them months ago. But it was only Mr. Biden’s decision in January to supply U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks that ended foot-dragging by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose approval was needed before his own military and those of other NATO partners could send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

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Speaking to members of Parliament in London last month, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace suggested that a similar dynamic might be at work with fighter jets. “Since we took on the battle over getting tanks to Ukraine, people are understandably asking what will be the next capability,” he said. “What we know about all these demands is that the initial response is no, but the eventual response is yes.”

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The trouble is the word “eventual.” Dithering over weapons for Ukraine is likely to translate into stalemate, which serves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests. The Kremlin dictator believes that his determination to subjugate Ukraine will outlast the West’s patience to stand steadfast with Kyiv. If he is right, U.S. and NATO credibility, influence and prestige will be irreparably damaged. Mr. Biden deepens the risk of that damage by withholding fighter jets, which could provide protection for Ukrainian forces and help deter further Russian aggression.

Unfortunately, the West has to think in terms of years. Even if Russian forces were pushed back to the lines that prevailed before Mr. Putin’s full-scale invasion a year ago — even if they were driven out of Ukraine entirely — the West would be wise to regard the threat from Moscow as an indefinite feature of the security landscape. That means providing Ukraine with deterrent muscle for the foreseeable future.

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Advanced fighter jets are not a panacea; they are one element of deterrence. If the Biden administration insists, they could be provided on the understanding that Ukraine will not use them to attack targets in Russian territory — where, in any event, Russian air-defense systems would make such sorties too dangerous. Within Ukraine’s own airspace, however, F-16s could narrow the gap between Moscow’s air power and Kyiv’s, and operate relatively safely in coordination with other Western-supplied weapons. Those include U.S.-made AGM-88 HARM radar-destroying missiles that would limit Russia’s ability to use surface-to-air missiles to shoot down fighter jets.

What’s more, F-16s are becoming more available as a number of NATO countries shift to the more advanced U.S.-made F-35. Yet without an official say-so from Washington, F-16s cannot be provided to Ukraine.

All wars end, but history is replete with ones that drag on, waxing and waning without a real cessation of hostilities. If that is the scenario Ukraine faces — and there is reason to believe it is — the United States and its allies need to start thinking beyond spring offensives or annual appropriations or the next election cycle. Long fights call for long-term planning and vision, and effective air power is essential on that horizon.

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