WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that European allies were developing a coordinated program to train Ukrainian forces on the F-16 fighter jet, but Pentagon leaders warned it would be a costly and complex task and would not be a magical solution to war.
Austin said the allies recognize that in addition to training, Ukraine will also need to be able to support and maintain the aircraft and have sufficient ammunition. And he said air defense systems are still the weapons Ukraine needs most in the broader airspace control effort.
“There are no magic weapons,” said Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke alongside Austin at a conference in press at the Pentagon. He said supplying 10 F-16s could cost $2 billion, including maintenance.
“The Russians have a thousand fourth and fifth generation fighters, so if you want to take on Russia in the air, you’ll need a substantial number of fourth and fifth generation fighters.”
As a result, he said, the allies did the right thing by first providing Ukraine with a significant amount of integrated air defense to cover the battlespace. He said F-16s will play a future role as part of Ukraine’s air capabilities, but “it’s going to take a long time to build an air force of the size, scope and scale that would be needed”.
Austin said Dutch and Danish defense ministers are working with the United States on the effort, and Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to help with the training. Additionally, he said the allies will set up a fund so that other nations can contribute to the overall effort.
“We expect more countries to join this important initiative,” Austin said, adding that the training is “an important example of our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s security.”
Earlier in the day, Austin said he hoped the training of Ukrainian pilots on American-made F-16 fighter jets would begin in the coming weeks, strengthening Ukraine in the long term, but not necessarily in the future. part of a counter-offensive planned for the spring against Russia.
Austin and Milley spoke at the close of a virtual meeting of defense leaders from around the world to discuss ongoing military support for Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders briefed them on the war effort and the military shortcomings facing the troops. Austin said the biggest gap continues to be ground-based air defense.
Leaders at their 12th meeting heard about ongoing combat operations and the counteroffensive and discussed how allies, who have faced their own stockpile pressures, can continue to support Kiev’s struggle against Russia. Ukrainian officials have not officially announced the launch of their highly anticipated counter-offensive, although some say it has already begun and the pace of attacks suggests it is underway.
“We’re going to have to dig deeper and we’re going to have to keep looking at creative ways to build our industrial capacity,” Austin said before the military leaders began their closed-door session. “The stakes are high. But the cause is just and our will is strong.
European leaders have said they are talking about countries that may have some of the F-16s. The United States has long been reluctant to supply the advanced plane to Ukraine, and it was only last weekend that President Joe Biden agreed to allow other countries to send their own manufactured planes. American in Kyiv.
“We hope this training will begin in the coming weeks,” Austin said. “This will further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian Air Force in the long term. And it will complement our short and medium term security arrangements. This new joint effort sends a powerful message of our unity and our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense.
European allies have voiced support for fighter jet training in recent days.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that training for Ukrainian pilots had started in Poland and some other countries, although Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said training was still in the planning phase. The Netherlands and Denmark, among others, are also preparing training plans.
“We can go ahead and also finalize the plans we are making with Denmark and other allies to start these trainings. And of course that is the first step you have to take,” the Dutch defense minister said, Kajsa Ollongren.
Ukraine has long sought the sophisticated fighter to give it a combat edge as it battles invading Russia, now in its second year.
The Biden administration’s decision was a sharp turnaround after refusing to approve any transfer of the plane or conduct training for more than a year over fears it could escalate tensions with Russia. US officials had also argued against the F-16 saying that learning to fly and logistically support such an advanced aircraft would be difficult and take months.