The Biden administration expects US-made F-16 fighter jets to arrive in Ukraine later this year, a senior spokesperson said, signaling that US officials are feeling a new sense of urgency to deliver the fighter jets as quickly as possible.
“Now look, the F-16s will probably get there by the end of the year,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Fox News on Thursday. “But we don’t think the F-16s alone would be enough to turn the tide here.”
On Friday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan echoed Kirby’s comments, saying the United States was “moving quickly” to send F-16s to Ukraine.
“We’re going to push as fast as we can,” Sullivan said during a speech at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.
Ukrainians have been pleading for more than a year for modern fighter jets to help repel Russian invaders. In May, President Joe Biden gave the United States support for an international effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, but the United States has yet to officially approve the training program, which is required under export restrictions.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 11 countries, led by Denmark and the Netherlands, has taken the first steps to make the training program a reality. European officials said last week they hoped to start training in Denmark in August, and a training center will also be set up in Romania. The UK, meanwhile, will soon begin teaching English to Ukrainian pilots.
F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin plans to oversee pilot training through a contractor, Draken International, according to Ukrainian press.
However, countries have been reluctant to commit to sending F-16s from their own fleets to the battlefield after training has ended. Norway plans to send two training planes for the Ukrainians to learn, according to a Norwegian defense official, but this has not been publicly announced.
Kirby’s remarks are “ambitious” as the administration is still working to finalize plans to deliver planes and train Ukrainian pilots, said a U.S. official, who, like the Norwegian official, was granted anonymity to speak about a sensitive technology transfer.
The United States is working to get Ukraine the F-16s “as quickly as possible, but it will take time,” the official added. Neither Kirby nor the official specified which countries would send their F-16s.
The timeline set by Kirby is faster than expected by Ukrainian officials, signaling a new sense of urgency. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a July 12 interview that he expected the first F-16s to fly in Ukrainian skies by the end of the first quarter of 2024.
Kirby’s comments come days after Sullivan was forced to answer questions about the United States’ commitment to training Ukrainian fighter pilots, after POLITICO reported that Europe was still awaiting official US approval.
Sullivan pointed out that the president promised to stick to “whatever timeline our European partners need.”
“The United States will not be alone in ensuring that this F-16 training can start,” he told CNN.
Sullivan said the main obstacle was that the European partners needed a few extra weeks to create the necessary training infrastructure. He did not commit to a specific timetable for training or delivery.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged his Western partners to deliver the jets as soon as possible. Speaking ahead of a NATO defense summit in Vilnius, Lithuania last week, he blamed his colleagues for what he said was a delay in sending the plane.
“We accepted, we insisted and we have a coalition of countries that are ready to start training Ukrainian pilots. [But] there is no timetable for training missions, and they are delaying it. I don’t know why they are doing this,” he said.
Alexander Ward contributed to this report.