The United States will no longer stand in the way of NATO allies transferring F-16 fighters to the Ukraine Air Force, and it will participate in training Ukrainian pilots in flight proficiency and tactical training but not in the US. On Friday, Joe Biden informed other G-7 leaders of the sudden volte-face in US policy at the G-7 summit in Japan. Other “senior administration officials,” by this I mean Antony, with no “h,” Blinken, confirmed the policy change just to let everyone know that the decision was real and it wasn’t a case of Joe slipping off into another of his bouts of delirium dementium. So the F-16s could be in action by late autumn.
F-16s or No F-16s?
Equipping the Ukraine Air Force has been the subject of intense debate within NATO (see Putin’s War, Week 52. US and China Face off, Prigozhin Goes for the Jugular, Mystery Weapon Strikes, and Happy Anniversary) and inside the Biden foreign and defense policy clown car. The Ukrainian Air Force uses the same Soviet-designed sleds as the Russian Air Force. Eastern Europe has been scoured for Soviet airframes of all sorts, flyable or unflyable. The operational aircraft are used to fill gaps in the Ukrainian Air Force. The non-operational ones are broken up for parts. That well has run dry. To show how far the decision to equip Ukraine with F-16 fighters is from where we started, shortly after the war began, several East European countries wanted to send surplus Soviet aircraft to Ukraine, and the US blocked that effort; see Transfer of NATO Aircraft to Ukraine Falls Through as Zelensky Resumes His Campaign for a No Fly Zone, Did Blinken Put Poland Outside NATO Protection if It Transfers New Fighter Aircraft to Ukraine?, and Biden Junta Duplicity Revealed After Poland Declares MiGs for Ukraine Are Ready to Go.
The next step was to equip Ukraine with an aircraft designed and built in Western Europe. The fighter needed to be multi-role (air-to-air, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, and interdiction), and there needed to be enough to make it worth the effort. The F-16, which the F-35 is replacing in many European air forces, was the logical answer.
Blinken vs. Kahl
The hold-up was a battle inside the Biden national security apparatus over this. The main combatants seem to be Secretary of State Blinken and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl. The F-16 question was just the most visible battleground between the two sides. The general fight was between those who feel that Ukraine needs to be given the weaponry it needs to expel the Russians and create the foundation for a stable security arrangement (Blinken) and those who want to drag the war out to a stalemate and then something (Kahl).
Losing the F-16 battle is not a little thing for Kahl. On the contrary, it represents a total repudiation of his position on the subject. In January, Kahl declared that Ukraine did not need the aircraft. In April, he said it would take 18 months to send the aircraft to Ukraine.
US Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl says it will take 1.5 years for the U.S. to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine from the moment the U.S. would potentially decide on sending them.
That decision should have been taken by February 25th, 2022. pic.twitter.com/ZQcnBue4r1
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) April 17, 2023
The USAF assessment of the training level of Ukrainian pilots has suddenly been “leaked,” and it says only four months transition training is needed.
Scoop: @YahooNews has obtained a U.S. Air Force assessment of how two Ukrainian pilots did in a 3-week course on F-16s at Morris Air National Guard Base in Feb/March. Conclusion: it’ll take 4 months to train them, not 18, as the Pentagon has said: https://t.co/sY3WSOuum0
— Michael Weiss (@michaeldweiss) May 18, 2023
How the F-16 decision was going to go was telegraphed last month when the Defense Department announced that the M-1 tanks that were scheduled for delivery in a year or two would be available by autumn. Monday, the Defense Department said Ukrainian tank and maintenance crews were beginning training in Germany.
Colin Kahl, who championed the Iran Nuclear Deal for the Biden Administration, is resigning after the NATO Summit scheduled for July 11-12. I’m interpreting that as a total victory for Blinken, and I think it will result in other US weapons systems, like ATACMS, soon being released to Ukraine.
This, of course, brings up the subject so near and dear to the hearts of all the Russia simps, “escalation.” Right after the announcement, the Russian state media outlet TASS quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko as saying:
“We see that Western countries are still adhering to the escalation scenario. It involves colossal risks for themselves. In any case, this will be taken into account in all our plans, and we have all the necessary means to achieve the goals we have set.”
If you still believe the escalation talk, I’m not going to argue with you. But at this point, “escalation” has much more in common with a religious belief than a defense policy scenario. Russia has waved the “nuclear war” and “escalation” flag to the point where all that remains are a few tattered strips of cloth. At every stage of this war, Russia and its supporters have predicted escalation. What has happened? Nothing. There have been no special forces attacks on NATO depots in eastern Poland. Russia has avoided attacking the major rail trunks delivering supplies from Poland to Ukraine. Supply convoys from Poland to Ukraine have remained untouched. In the meantime, Ukraine has received some of the most modern armaments available and a steady supply of war materiel to keep its army in the field. Ukraine has struck targets in areas claimed by Russia as its territory as well as targets deep inside Russia proper.
A New War Strategy
While the focus is on Ukraine getting modern NATO aircraft and NATO tactical training for the aircrew, there is a bigger story here. Equipping the Ukrainian Air Force to achieve air superiority over the battlefield marks a change in the minimalist attitude toward supporting Ukraine that has permeated the Biden State and Defense Departments. For over a year, the discussion has been dominated by the idea of giving Putin an “off ramp,” and allowing some “face saving” solution that inevitably boils down to forcing Ukraine to give up sovereign territory and allowing Russia to catch its breath before a new round of hostilities. Not the focus, I hope, will be on ending the war by rolling back Russia’s aggression and providing Ukraine with the security guarantees, like NATO membership, that will prevent this war from starting again in a few years.