A group of senators from both parties is pressing the Pentagon for more information on what it would take to send F-16 jets to Ukraine.
The fresh push came in a letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from eight senators, and obtained by POLITICO, as top administration officials from President Joe Biden on down have poured cold water on bipartisan calls to send U.S.-made fighters into the fight for now.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is “now at a critical juncture,” the senators wrote, arguing F-16 fighters could give Kyiv an edge as Moscow’s full-tilt invasion enters a second year.
“After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine,” the senators wrote. “This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield.”
The letter was organized by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).
The senators requested Austin provide them with assessments by the end of the week on a variety of factors needed to successfully transfer F-16s to Ukraine.
Among their questions, the lawmakers asked how high Ukrainian officials are ranking fighter jets when making requests for weapons and how the F-16s might be sourced if approved — either newly produced or from current inventories. They also sought the military’s assessment of what impact F-16s would have on the conflict and how quickly Ukrainian pilots could be trained on the jets.
The group hailed reports that two Ukrainian pilots came to the U.S. for a fighter skills assessment at Tucson’s Morris Air National Guard Base, in Kelly’s home state, which they called a “critical step in gauging” their readiness to fly F-16s.
Also signing onto the letter were Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Jacky Rosen of Nevada as well as Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Ted Budd of North Carolina.
Bipartisan efforts to convince the Biden administration to send F-16s, or facilitate other countries sending them to Ukraine, have been bolstered by assessments such as those of Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe. Cavoli told lawmakers behind closed doors at the Munich Security Conference last month that sending advanced weapons, including F-16s and long-range missiles, could help bolster Ukraine’s defenses.
But top civilian officials, including Biden and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, say fighters aren’t an immediate battlefield need compared to other capabilities.
Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl also defended the administration’s stance, telling the House Armed Services Committee last month that the most optimistic timeline for delivering older F-16s would be roughly 18 months, while producing newer jets could take three to six years to deliver.
“It is a priority for the Ukrainians, but it’s not one of their top three priorities,” Kahl testified. “Their top priorities are air defense systems … artillery and fires, which we’ve talked about, and armor and mechanized systems.”
The Senate letter follows a bipartisan effort in the House, spearheaded by Maine Democrat Jared Golden, to convince Biden to send Kyiv F-16s or similar aircraft.