F-16. Photo: AP
The military’s top general cautioned that F-16s won’t act as a “magic weapon” for Ukraine, but the U.S. is fully behind a group of NATO allies taking the lead on training and potentially transferring the jets to Kyiv.
“The Russians have 1,000 fourth-generation fighters,” Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon following a virtual meeting of the multinational Ukraine Defense Contact Group. If you’re gonna contest Russia in the air, you’re gonna need a substantial amount of fourth and fifth generation fighters, so if you look at the cost curve and do the analysis, the smartest thing to have done is exactly what we did do, which is provide a significant amount of integrated air defenses to cover the battlespace and deny the Russians the airspace.”
Fighter jets are vastly more expensive than artillery rounds and ground vehicles, which Western allies have focused on flooding into Ukraine to help push Russian forces back in the south. Spending the money on those near-term weapons, as opposed to expensive warplanes with their complex logistical needs, has been worthwhile, Milley said.
“If you look at the F-16, 10 F-16s [cost] a billion dollars, the sustainment cost another billion dollars, so you’re talking about $2 billion for 10 aircraft,” Milley said, adding that if the planes had been sent sooner, they would have eaten up the funding for those other capabilities that have put Ukraine on their front foot.
“There are no magic weapons in war, F-16s are not and neither is anything else,” he said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that Denmark and the Netherlands are taking the lead in the joint coalition to train Ukrainian pilots on modern fighter jets. He said Norway, Belgium, Poland and Portugal have also pledged to take part in the training.
The coalition plans to train roughly 20 Ukrainian pilots initially, although the exact number will depend on the countries’ capacity to support the project, according to a UK government spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to discuss details ahead of an announcement.
Ukraine will require a pipeline of pilots to learn the fundamentals of flying who can then move up to jets, the spokesperson said. To that end, the first stage of instruction will focus on ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots, who will then be ready to learn specific airframes, such as the F-16 and others. The F-16 training will take place at a site in Europe, Defense Department officials have said.
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