What’s going on with Ukraine and F-16s?

101915 klimas f16 afghanistan pic
A U.S. plane in Afghanistan was struck by small-arms fire over Afghanistan last week. The F-16 was able to land safely after the incident on Oct. 13, said a Pentagon spokesman. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis) Mindaugas Kulbis

What’s going on with Ukraine and F-16s?

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Will the United States accede to Ukraine’s request for F-16 fighter aircraft?

When asked the question earlier in the week, President Joe Biden flatly stated, “no.” But as we saw during the back-and-forth about tanks, a “no” can quickly turn into a “yes.” There was a time very recently, after all, when Pentagon officials were explaining why the M1A2 Abrams tank would be too complicated and expensive for the Ukrainians to operate. Suddenly, however, the White House agreed to send more than two dozen of the tanks to Ukraine. Biden wanted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send the more readily-available Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Scholz wouldn’t do so until his partner across the Atlantic green-lit the Abrams.

That episode has given the Ukrainian government renewed confidence that, while it may take some time, the West will come around to their demands.

We are seeing a similar story play out with the F-16s. Yet again, Biden is shooting down the notion of transferring the fourth-generation aircraft to the Ukrainians. Some U.S. officials are again citing the difficult logistical challenges Kyiv would have in operating the jets. But the Ukrainians are upping their pressure. It seems to be working; France and the Netherlands have already broached the idea of sending aircraft to Kyiv pending a formal request. But what are some of the other issues involved here?

Well, first, it’s hard to see F-16s actually making much of a difference. The war in Ukraine is predominantly a war of ground-launched missiles, howitzers, heavy armor, and human bodies. Aircraft have played a secondary role in combat, partly due to the extreme risk of losing them to air defense. Throwing more fighter planes into the sky could aid Ukrainian ground units to soften up Russia’s lines, but they would also be susceptible to counterfire from systems such as the Russian S-400 air defense network.

Second, the U.S. has a responsibility, if not a duty, to do its due diligence as it weighs the numerous asks coming from Kyiv. Just because Ukraine is in a merciless war for its own survival doesn’t necessarily mean they are entitled to every single piece of equipment in the U.S. military’s arsenal.

Third, U.S. officials can’t dismiss the age-old concerns about escalation. The core issue isn’t about the F-16s per se but about how Ukraine would use the F-16s. While the first priority would likely zero in on weakening Russia’s defensive lines in the Donbas, nobody can exclude the possibility of the Ukrainians employing F-16s in Crimea.

Why is this a problem? Crimea, after all, is legitimate Ukrainian territory recognized by the international community. True enough. But Putin also happens to idealize Crimea and believes the Black Sea peninsula is one of those strategically important areas Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev should never have handed over to Ukraine in the first place. The annexation of Crimea was one of Putin’s most significant political moments — losing it doesn’t seem to be an option. Would this be Putin’s true red-line issue?

Throughout the war, the Biden administration has done a decent job assisting Ukraine and averting escalation with Moscow. It now has to ask if transferring fighter jets to the Ukrainians will help or undermine these two seemingly contradictory goals.

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Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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