Biden rejects Ukraine's request for F-16 fighter jets but Europe may step in to help

Biden rejects Ukraine's request for F-16 fighter jets but Europe may step in to help
US-made Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets are seen as top of Ukraine's wish list. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in London January 31, 2023

Ukraine now has its sights set on obtaining Western-made fighter jets, but so far has not found any solid support.

A week after Kyiv won a major victory in securing main battle tanks from allies, Ukraine is focusing on procuring fourth-generation aircraft to defend its skies. However, US President Joe Biden appears to have drawn a line, telling a Voice of America journalist on January 30 that Washington would not send F-16 fighter jets, Radio Free Europe reported.

But Ukraine may find more support in Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron has not ruled out sending jets; however, he explained that requirements need to be set in place. In particular, the French leader emphasised that the aircraft must not be used to escalate the conflict and cannot “touch Russian soil”. Moreover, the decision must not “weaken the potential of the French army,” he said at a joint news conference in The Hague.

Speaking at the same conference, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that Ukraine has not yet requested F-16s, and although it would be “a massive step forward”, it would not be “a taboo”. Both France and the Netherlands are among the Nato countries that have pledged main battle tanks following Germany’s decision to allow allies to send Leopard 2 tanks.

Despite Berlin eventually agreeing to provide 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has emphasised that Germany will not provide jets. Scholz has warned against sending more and more advanced weapons to Ukraine out of fear it will escalate the war.

“The question of fighter planes does not even arise. I can only advise against getting into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapon systems,” he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Euronews reported.

"There is no war between Nato and Russia. We will not allow such an escalation," he added.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany Oleksiy Makeyev told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the fighter jets would be used for defensive purposes rather than offensive, stating that they would shoot down Russian missiles targeting energy infrastructure. Moreover, Russia’s extensive air-defence systems mean that the jets would struggle to conduct offensives over Russian-controlled territory, according to Tim Sweijs, director of research at The Hague Centre.

In an interview with CNN, Sweijs explained that the jets by themselves would not constitute a massive game-changer but could be a piece to the puzzle that gives Ukraine battlefield superiority.

“Tanks, troops of course, longer-range systems such as HIMARS, with the ability to take out Russian radar systems – in combination with the F-16 – that combination could help Ukraine turn the tide,” he said.

According to defence analyst Peter Wijninga, Ukraine would also need to destroy Russian S-400 air defence systems as well as S-300 systems in order to use F-16s effectively, CNN reported.

Considering the time and effort it took Ukraine to receive tanks, a delivery of fighter jets may be a long way in the future, if it happens at all. Nevertheless, Ukraine remains optimistic and sees the tank deliveries as a guarantee that allies will eventually give the country what it needs to defend itself from Russian aggression.

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