It was not immediately clear when the first F-16s might enter combat, but officials say Ukrainian pilots must first undergo at least six months of training in the aircraft.
Ukraine has long begged for the advanced fighter jet to provide it with a warhead. It recently launched a long-awaited counteroffensive against Kremlin forces without air cover, putting its troops at the mercy of Russian aircraft and artillery.
Even so, Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. air forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters in Washington that he does not expect the F-16s to be a game changer for Ukraine. He said it could take “four or five years” to get F-16 forces ready for combat.
But in eastern Ukraine, attack helicopter pilots welcomed the news. Russia has a clear advantage in the skies, they said, but the introduction of better fighter jets could shift the balance of power dramatically in Kyiv’s way.
Ukrainian air forces supporting the infantry use decades-old Soviet-era aircraft that are vulnerable to air-to-air missile attacks from Russian warplanes, Capt. Yevhen Rakita, a spokesman for the 18th Army Air Force, told The Associated Press.
“A modern war cannot be won without aircraft,” Rakita said.
In deciding on the F-16 deliveries, Washington aims to ensure that the fighter jets are delivered to Ukraine once its pilots complete training, a US administration official who was not authorized to comment and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sent a letter to his Dutch and Danish counterparts earlier this week formally guaranteeing that the U.S. would quickly approve all third-party requests to transfer F-16s to Ukraine. .
Training for Ukrainian pilots will begin this month, Danish Defense Minister Jakob Elleman-Jensen said on Friday.
A consortium of 11 Western nations — the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom — pledged in July to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s.
Denmark will hand over some of its F-16s only after receiving its new F-35 jet fighters. The first four F-35s are scheduled to be delivered on October 1.
Donations of aircraft to other countries require Washington’s blessing because the planes are manufactured in the United States.
Ukraine’s Western allies have sometimes been slow to provide the military support Kiev has requested.
President Joe Biden’s authorization last May to train Ukrainian forces on how to operate the fighter jets and eventually deliver the aircraft themselves preceded months of debate in Washington and quiet negotiations with allies, officials said.
The administration is concerned that the move could escalate tensions with Russia. Also, US officials argued that the advanced F-16 would be difficult to learn to fly and logistically support.
Washington says the F-16s – like the advanced US Abrams tanks – will be critical to Ukraine’s long-term security, although delivery will take months.
Ukraine relies on older aircraft such as the Russian-made MiG-29 and Sukhoi jets. The F-16s have new technology and targeting capabilities. Experts say they are extremely versatile.
Among other developments:
– Russian air defenses have halted drone attacks on central Moscow and the country’s ships in the Black Sea, officials said Friday, accusing it of attempted attacks on Ukraine. Unable to verify requests.
– A Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship that set out this week on a temporary Black Sea route established by Ukraine for commercial shipping arrived safely off the coast of Istanbul on Friday. The Russian Navy watched the voyage closely to see if it would allow the Joseph Schulte container ship to pass undisturbed.
Kullab reported from eastern Ukraine and Olsen from Copenhagen. Amir Madani and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington and Jim Heintz from Tallinn, Estonia.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine