The Washington Post
Congress presses Pentagon on reluctance to give F-16s
Ukrainian forces would need at least 18 months to learn how to fly and maintain F-16 fighter jets in combat, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday as the Biden administration continued to fend off questions about why a frequent request from Kyiv and, increasingly, some American politicians remains unfulfilled.
The issue has dogged the administration for months, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to make regular public pleas for the planes and U.S. lawmakers question why Ukrainian pilots are not in training to learn how they operate.
“I do think this conversation will continue,” Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, explained to members of the House Armed Services Committee. In a best-case scenario, he said, older F-16s could be transferred within about 18 months. To purchase and deliver new ones, he noted, could take up to six years, adding that U.S. Air Force personnel have assessed that for Ukraine to upgrade its fleet of fighter aircraft, it probably will need about 80 jets.
“It’s just hard for me to tell any member of Congress, of the American public, that the best use of that dollar spent right now is on F-16s,” Kahl said.
President Biden said last week that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now,” underscoring his senior military advisers’ expectation that when the war’s next phase begins to accelerate with the springtime thaw, it will look a lot like the grueling, bloody ground campaign that has left tens of thousands dead and wounded on both sides.
The House Armed Services Committee’s Republican leadership called Tuesday’s hearing amid growing skepticism within a segment of the party, and among some Democrats, about the volume of aid Washington has authorized to help Ukraine fend off invading Russian forces. The GOP, broadly, has pledged to conduct vigorous oversight of the tens of billions of dollars in weapons and money that the administration has provided the government in Kyiv. Generally, though, members of both political parties agreed during the session that doing so is appropriate, with most appearing to eschew the highly partisan theatrics that have come to dominate congressional dialogue on many matters.
One Republican, Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.), even praised the president for his visit last week to Kyiv, where, alongside Zelensky, he marked the war’s first anniversary.
While an outspoken minority of Republicans has questioned whether Washington should be helping Ukraine at all, several others have joined Democrats in scrutinizing whether the administration is moving quickly enough to provide the sorts of advanced weapons that could help Zelensky’s military drive out the Russians from occupied areas and give Kyiv the upper hand in any future peace negotiations.
“Since the beginning, the president has been overly worried, in my view, that giving Ukraine what it needs to win would be too escalatory,” said Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-ala.), the committee’s chairman. “This hesitation has only prolonged the war and driven up the cost in terms of dollars and lives.”
Rep. Jared Golden (D-maine) noted that a bipartisan group of lawmakers had called on the administration several times in the past year to provide long-range missiles in addition to F-16s. While Ukrainian officials may have more immediate priorities, such as obtaining additional air defenses to protect people and civilian infrastructure from Russian missile and drone attacks, “certainly they would prefer to have their top five or top six or top ten needs or capabilities met,” Golden said.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith ( Wash.), hewed more closely to the administration’s point of view, saying that while “everyone has become obsessed” with F-16s in recent weeks, a provision of advanced aircraft would carry considerable expense but no immediate payoff. Biden officials have indicated instead that any effort to modernize Ukraine’s air force should accompany a broader discussion about the country’s needs for maintaining its security once the war ends.
“We could maybe get some operational F-16s into Ukraine within a year, maybe eight months if we really pushed it,” Smith said. “And this is getting lucky, all right? Because you don’t just have to train the pilots, you have to train the mechanics, you have to have airfields that can accommodate the F-16 and you have to have the spare parts to make it work. So we looked at that, and we determined that is not a wise use of the resources that are necessary to win the fight.”
In a separate hearing later Tuesday, senior U.S. defense officials said Russia’s formidable air defenses also remain a keen concern for any aircraft that Ukraine deploys.
Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, a senior officer with the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers with the House Appropriations defense subcommittee that while the Ukrainian military has been able to carry out some air support missions with the planes it possesses, the challenges facing commanders would not be surmounted if it were U.s.-made planes going up against Russian systems.
A Republican in that hearing, Rep. Mike Garcia (Calif.), said that while the United States has assisted a “noble fight” waged by the Ukrainians over the past year, he has grown concerned as the conversation in Washington has shifted to more significant weapons.
“My question is: Is there meaningful conversation where, rather than just listening to what the Ukrainians are asking for, we’re actually having a tactical and strategic dialogue with them and asking them what are they trying to achieve, and then matching a weapon system to it?” said Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot. “I fear that we’re being distracted by the silliness of asking for F-16s.”
Tuesday’s hearings were remarkable for the broad sense of agreement among Republicans and Democrats who favor a stricter accounting of the vast amount of military hardware being sent into the war zone. Kahl, when asked about the possibility of U.s.-provided weapons falling into the wrong hands, said the Pentagon had not seen “any evidence” of diversion.
The Defense Department’s inspector general, Robert Storch, characterized his team’s work as aggressive, ongoing and sprawling in scope. To date, he said, its findings were “limited,” though. Under questioning, Storch stopped short of saying that no weapons have gone missing in Ukraine, telling Rep. John Garamendi (D.- Calif.) that so far inspectors had turned up no major issues.
The hearing was convened two weeks after Rogers, the armed services committee chair, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Poland and Romania meant to observe how the U.S. military delivers and tracks the weapons it provides to Ukraine. The lawmakers released a joint statement after their trip calling for greater transparency on the issue.
“The American people have every right to know that U.S. military equipment donated to Ukraine is being used for its intended purpose — Ukraine’s fight for national survival,” the lawmakers said. They added that they “came away with a clear understanding of the various safeguards” that have been put in place after a briefing with the American general who oversees the effort, but they warned that “should we confirm that any defense articles are siphoned off, diverted, or missing the flow of U.S. equipment would cease to be tenable.”