Ukraine should have F-16s ‘very soon’

The Ukrainian air force should receive the first deliveries of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets “hopefully very, very soon,” according to the embattled country’s defense chief.

“We need as much as we may get,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov told Reuters. “At this stage, we are focused on training our personnel … pilots, we are focused on infrastructure, we are focused on bringing operational and maintenance teams, and we are working on modernization or bringing on more platforms.”

The arrival of the F-16s would be a boon for Ukrainian air defenses and morale after months of punishing bombardments by Russian forces throughout a protracted lapse in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Long sought by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an upgrade over their limited number of Soviet-style warplanes, the F-16s could add a new layer of air defenses against incoming Russian cruise missiles.

“I wish you a good completion of your training,” Zelensky told Ukrainian personnel training at a military base in Belgium. “Thank you very much, we are counting on you, and we are waiting for you at home.”

Belgium has agreed to transfer a total of 30 F-16 fighters to the Ukrainian forces, although the delivery date remains unclear. 

“Ukrainians continue to be killed by the Russian invader every day,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said after hosting Zelensky on Tuesday. “Ukraine can only push back Russia with more and better arms, delivered at a faster pace.”

Denmark, another key member of the coalition of F-16 donors, has signaled that the first of its planes will be transferred to Ukraine “this summer,” a time frame that Zelensky’s government also has endorsed.

“Initially, it was planned that F-16s would appear in Ukraine’s airspace by mid-summer,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in March. “Today, everything is going according to plan. However, this is certainly a very complex and intricate issue, so you never know how things might change. But for now, that’s the schedule.”

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As the arrival of the F-16s comes into view, however, the debut of other NATO-standard fighter jets in Ukrainian skies is receding. Sweden is tapping the brakes on the delivery of the Gripen fighter jets they have promised to send. 

“We have been urged by the other countries in the coalition to wait with the Gripen system,” Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson told Swedish media on Tuesday. “This has to do with the fact that the focus is now on introducing the F-16 system.”

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