F-16s Would Make No ‘Fundamental Change’ in Ukraine’s War Effort, USAF Secretary Says
Biden’s decision to start training Ukrainian pilots on the jet is more about setting up Kyiv’s long-term capabilities, Kendall said.
Sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine would make no “fundamental change” to the war, the U.S. Air Force secretary said.
“It will give Ukrainians an increment of capability that they don't have right now, but it's not going to be a dramatic game-changer, as far as I'm concerned, for their total military capabilities,” Frank Kendall told reporters Monday during a Defense Writers Group event.
President Biden announced on Friday that the U.S. will help train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and other modern jets, a move that could enable Kyiv to use the jets if any are donated.
Kendall did not rule out eventually sending U.S. F-16s to Ukraine, but said he “didn’t know” and that “there are a number of possibilities, but we haven’t sorted all that out yet.”
While manned and unmanned aircraft are flying above Ukraine every day, Kendall said airpower has not been a decisive factor since Russia’s invasion because neither side has been able to gain control of the skies.
“Both sides have most generally used aircraft for fairly limited operations. And part of that has been the efficacy of ground-based air defenses, on both sides, so with small numbers of aircraft and with not a full suite of capabilities, more modern capabilities, it's hard to overcome those systems. And that's one of the fundamental limitations here,” he said.
Asked whether F-16s should have been provided already, Kendall said the U.S. has been focused on providing weapons and gear that will make the most difference on the battlefield and “that’s what we’ve done.”
Also, sending fighter jets would be seen “by some as an escalatory act on our part,” Kendall added.
Even if Ukraine’s supporters decided today to donate fighter jets, it would take months to deliver them, Kendall said.
“We will not under any circumstances get F-16s or another Western fighter in significant numbers into the hands of the Ukrainian Air Force in something less than at least several months, so there was always a long-lead-time kind of a thing,” he said.
Kendall thinks the decision, in part, to train pilots to fly fighters now has to do with Ukraine’s long-term posture in the war.
“Ukraine is going to remain an independent nation. It's going to need a full suite of military capabilities for its requirements and so it's time to start thinking longer-term about what that military might look like and what it might include,” he said.
While Ukrainian pilots are largely used to flying Soviet-era aircraft, Kendall said it will take “months, not years” to train Ukrainians on modern aircraft.
“Everything we've done with the Ukrainians, they've shown a capacity to learn. And certainly, I don't think I've ever seen more motivated individuals in terms of wanting to get into the fight and make a difference,” Kendall said.