Ukraine’s prime minister urges US to send F-15 or F-16 fighter jets during Pentagon meeting
Stars and Stripes April 12, 2023
WASHINGTON — Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal urged the United States on Wednesday to begin sending fighter jets that can help drive Russian forces out of the country, especially if Moscow begins to employ high-end fighters and bombers.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin welcomed Shmyhal to the Pentagon Wednesday and the two discussed Ukraine’s immediate military needs amid preparations for increased Russian attacks now that the weather is warming.
“Russia’s cruel war of choice has killed thousands of Ukrainians, both troops and innocent civilians,” Austin said during the meeting at the Pentagon. “I’m confident we will meet Ukraine’s defense needs through this spring and beyond. And as [President Joe Biden] has repeatedly made clear, we will stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
U.S. and other Western leaders have been giving tens of billions in security aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. Those packages have included a wide array of weapons and equipment, including sophisticated M1 Abrams battle tanks, Patriot missile systems, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers, guns and millions of rounds of ammunition.
One thing the U.S. has not committed to sending are fighter jets of any kind, despite repeated requests from Kyiv.
“In modern warfare, air superiority is crucial," Shmyhal said. "That’s why Ukraine is initiating the building of a new, so-called ‘fighter jet coalition.’ And we are inviting the United States to become its most important participant.”
“America can once again demonstrate its leadership by providing Ukraine with F-15 or F-16 aircraft,” he added.
The F-15 Eagle has been in service with the Air Force for almost a half-century and the F-16 Fighting Falcon has been in Air Force and Navy fleets for more than four decades. But for months, Biden and U.S. military leaders have said American fighter jets are not top priorities for Ukraine, partly because the country already has its own fleet of Russian-made fighter jets Ukrainian pilots are far more familiar with. Ukraine is a former Soviet republic.
In February, Biden said during a television interview that sending F-16s to Ukraine had been ruled out “for now” mostly because U.S. military officials have identified greater needs for Kyiv. To date, Biden’s administration has committed more than $35 billion in weapons, equipment and vehicles to Ukraine’s defense.
There are some growing calls for sending U.S. fighter jets to Ukraine, including a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress. In March, eight Democratic and Republican senators sent a letter to Austin calling on him to send F-16s to help secure the skies over eastern Ukraine, where most of the fighting is.
“To defend ourselves and defend Europe, we need more heavy equipment but also aircraft,” Shmyhal said at Wednesday’s meeting with Austin.
“Russia must be defeated in Ukraine,” he added. “That is the only guarantee for our lasting peace and this will be the best guarantee for security of whole Europe and the whole world. And I, once again, thank the United States of America and the American people for their solidarity with Ukraine. Together, we will win.”
Some experts and observers feel Biden’s administration will eventually agree to send fighter jets, as it has done with other equipment. Over the past year, Biden and Austin initially declined to send multiple systems Ukraine was asking for, only to change their mind later. Perhaps the best example of this involved Abrams tanks, which defense officials said for weeks was not suited for Ukraine due to maintenance requirements. A short time later, however, they announced they would give Kyiv 31 Abrams tanks.
Calls for sending American fighter jets also are growing after the leak of what appear to be sensitive or classified U.S. military documents on social media sites in recent weeks. According to some of those documents, Ukraine is running out of anti-aircraft missiles — and may be entirely depleted by the end of May.
Experts say if Ukrainian forces run low on such a critical air defense capability, Moscow might begin sending some of its more advanced fighter jets — such as the Sukhoi Su-34 bomber, Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter and MiG-35 multi-role fighter. If that happens, Ukraine might not be able to counter Russian planes with the fleet it currently has.
“After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine. This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield,” the March 14 letter says.
The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Jacky Rosen of Nevada — and Republican Sens. Ted Budd of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
“If anything, we expect additional Russian offensives this spring,” the letter concludes. “In order to restore peace and security in Europe, the United States must continue working with our allies to continuously assess how we can best support Ukraine’s efforts and ensure [Russian President Vladimir] Putin loses this war.”