F-16s: The United States is signaling to allies that it will not block the export of F-16s to Ukraine

(CNN) The Biden administration has made it clear to European allies in recent weeks that the United States will allow them to do so Export of F-16 fighter jets to UkraineSources familiar with the discussions said the White House is under increasing pressure from members of Congress and allies to help Ukraine buy the planes amid an intensification of Russian air strikes.

However, administration officials are not aware of any formal requests by any allies to export the F-16s, and State Department officials who are usually tasked with the paperwork to approve such third-party transfers have not been told to begin work, the officials said. He said.

A handful of European countries have supplies of US-made F-16s, including the Netherlands, indicating they are willing to export some to Ukraine. But the US would have to agree to the third party transfer because of the aircraft’s sensitive US technology.

While the US remains reluctant to send any of its F-16s to Kiev, US officials told CNN that the administration is willing to approve the export of the jets to Ukraine if that is what allies decide to do with their supplies.

File photo of an F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter jet

The National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, declined to comment specifically on the possibility of the US sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, but said broadly that the US is looking forward on “future capabilities and needs.” He said the F-16s were “not on the agenda” at the G7, although the jets could certainly appear on the sidelines of the summit.

US lawmakers and congressional staffers have joined the F-16 pressure campaign, urging the administration to provide the planes so that Ukraine can assert control over its airspace.

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“As a bipartisan group of lawmakers, we view the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine as essential to providing Kiev with the air support capability required to fully defend their nation against Russia’s unprovoked, illegal, and brutal invasion, and to make the territorial gains needed to take back their country,” he wrote. A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday obtained by CNN.

Officials said the issue is expected to be a topic of discussion at the next NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.

Another open question is where the Ukrainian pilots will train on the F-16s. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said earlier this week that the UK and the Netherlands are looking to form an “international coalition” not only to buy planes for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighters, which are more advanced than the Ukrainian fighter fleet.

In March, the United States hosted Ukrainian pilots at a military base in Tucson, Arizona, to assess their skills using flight simulators and to assess how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including the F-16. The US has no plans yet to expand such training, a defense official told CNN, though Congress has appropriated money in the 2023 budget for such training.

US allies with the F-16s could conduct training for Ukrainian fighter pilots, or the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, could conduct the training as a private contractor. But the defense official said such an arrangement would likely require some level of American involvement, even if it didn’t require a formal US signature like transfers of US weapons overseas.

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Ukrainians step up the pressure campaign

Top Ukrainian officials have stepped up their campaign of public pressure for the US-made F-16s in recent months, arguing that they urgently need them to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.

Russia launched an “unprecedented” series of missile attacks on Kiev on Thursday morning, a Ukrainian official said, just days after Russia launched a barrage of six hypersonic missiles near the capital aimed at destroying Ukraine’s Patriot air defense systems.

“The series of air strikes on Kiev, unprecedented in their strength, intensity and diversity, continues,” said Serhiy Popko, head of the Kiev civil and military administration.

Officials say Ukraine will have to improvise without the jets. Defense officials and congressional staffers told CNN that in recent weeks Ukrainian forces have used the US Patriot air defense system to shoot down at least one Russian fighter jet. Russian aircraft have largely remained behind Russian defensive lines, making it difficult for Ukraine to target them with short-range systems such as NASAMs.

US officials said that the Russian planes targeted by the Patriots were conducting a strafing operation to fire missiles at Ukrainian targets, which Russia has been doing for the past year to maximize civilian casualties.

The officials said the Ukrainians were in charge of making their own firing decisions once the West introduced the Patriot systems, noting that it was up to the Ukrainians about when and how to handle the Patriots to protect their own people.

Some members of Congress argue that advanced fighter jets would make it easier for Ukraine to target Russian planes, without having to spend on expensive Patriot munitions that are made to intercept ballistic missiles.

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However, some US officials question this argument, and note that Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that can easily shoot down F-16s. Officials said that Ukraine has not flown many missions with the fighter jets it already has for precisely this reason.

However, there is a belief in Kiev that with enough public pressure, the Ukrainians could eventually secure weapons systems that the West once considered a red line. HIMARS, battle tanks, and a Patriot battery were all previously considered off-limits — all now either in the country or headed there soon.

While the UK does not have any F-16s of its own, the British government appears to have made a drastic shift on the issue over the past several months. In January, a British government spokesperson told reporters that the UK believed the planes were “very sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly. Given that, we think it is impractical to send those planes to Ukraine”.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Kiev and London were “actively moving forward” on a plan to buy it.

“We need F-16s,” said Andrei Yermak, chief of staff to the Ukrainian president. “And I am grateful to our allies for their decision to work in this direction, including training our pilots.”

CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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