The US green light to allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained to fly F-16s has created an inexorable momentum that will inevitably take the fighter jets to the Ukrainian battlefield, the EU’s foreign policy chief has said.
“You know, it’s always the same thing, we discuss, at the beginning everybody is reluctant,” said Josep Borrell, giving the example of the long debate and initial opposition to the dispatch of advanced Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine.
“And at the end, with the Leopards, with the F-16 at the end, the decision comes to provide this military support because it is absolutely needed.”
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the training decision was the exact thrust necessary towards making the jets available to Ukraine.
“Announcing clearly that they will start training, this is an important step that partly will enable us to deliver fighter jets at some stage,” Mr Stoltenberg said before meeting EU defence ministers.
He said it also proved that the West would not stand down in the face of Russia, saying such a decision “is sending a very clear signal that we are there for the long term and that Russia cannot wait us out”.
Mr Borrell said training for Ukrainian pilots had already begun in Poland and some other countries. The Netherlands and Denmark, among others, are also making plans for such training.
No decision on actually delivering fourth-generation fighter jets has been taken yet, but training pilots now – a process that takes several months – will help speed up battle readiness once a formal decision is made.
“We can continue and also finalise the plans that we’re making with Denmark and other allies to start these these trainings. And of course, that is the first step that you have to take,” Dutch defence minister Kajsa Ollongren said.
“We will continue discussing with our allies and with countries that might have F-16s available about that next step. But that’s not on the table right now,” Ms Ollongren said.
Ukraine has long sought the sophisticated fighter to give it a combat edge as it battles Russia’s invasion, now in its second year.
This new plan opens the door for several nations to supply the aircraft and for the US to help train the pilots.
The Joe Biden administration has made a sharp reversal after refusing to approve any transfer of the aircraft or conduct training for more than a year because of worries that it could escalate tensions with Russia.
US officials have also argued against the F-16 by saying that learning to fly and logistically support such an advanced aircraft would be difficult and take months.