Russia and Ukraine locked in ‘very difficult’ battle over Bakhmut
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted Western nations to supply an ever-growing list of weapons to Kyiv as it seeks to defend itself: from small arms and anti-tank weapons to artillery, missiles and tanks.
Such expansions — particularly this month’s deal to start supplying Ukraine with German- and American-made tanks — have promised equipment that previously seemed off limits.
So what about calls by Ukrainian officials for some of their allies’ most powerful weapons: military jets?
A senior adviser to Mr Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, suggested on Monday that Ukraine had started to pressure NATO countries over the issue of warplanes, saying on Telegram that Kyiv had received ‘positive signals’ of Poland regarding the F-16 fighter jets. Poland, an early supporter of sending German-made tanks to Ukraine, stressed that it was coordinating arms decisions with other NATO members.
And Wopke Hoekstra, the foreign minister of fellow NATO member the Netherlands, recently told Dutch lawmakers that the government would be willing to send American-made F-16 jets if the United States authorized the transfer.
However, on Monday President Biden, when asked by a reporter if the United States would provide F-16 fighter jets, said no. The White House declined to comment on a question about whether Mr Biden was ruling out the use of the jets entirely or just an immediate transfer of them.
Other leaders have been more direct. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated recently that Berlin will not send fighter jets to Ukraine. “The fact that we are not talking about fighter jets is something I said very early on, and I say it clearly here as well,” he said in an announcement that Germany would send tanks Ukrainians.
On Monday, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged the aircraft questions in remarks to MPs.
“Since we fought to bring tanks to Ukraine, people naturally wonder what the next capability will be,” he said. “What we know from all of these requests is that the initial answer is no, but the final answer is yes.”
Britain, Mr Wallace said, would follow the progress of talks between Western allies, but noted that decisions on military aid are not “an ad hoc thing”.
Last week, the US position seemed flexible. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Sabrina Singh, said at the time that she did not believe the United States had ever “drawn a line” on what weapons it was prepared to supply, and stressed that the United States provided Ukraine with significant air defense capabilities.
But if Western nations supplied advanced aircraft, training Ukrainian pilots would be a complicating factor, she said, forcing “more people to leave the battlefield to learn an entirely new system”.
If fighter jets were to be sent, Ukrainian pilots would not be the only ones who needed training. The logistics of supporting a slice of aircraft unfamiliar to Ukrainian mechanics, who are trained on Soviet-era equipment, would be long and tedious.
And how these planes would be used remains an open question. The proliferation of surface-to-air missiles on both sides has meant that dogfights and bombardments are rare compared to the fierce artillery battles that defined the war.
The US supply of AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles which began arriving over the summer has allowed the Ukrainian air force – mostly made up of aircraft and helicopters from the Soviet era – to fire their ammunition far enough from the front lines not to be exposed to Russian air defenses.
The supply of new jets “would reduce Ukraine’s disadvantage to the Russian Air Force and simplify the use of Western air-launched munitions, but this is a lower priority issue, although considered,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.