While calls for the U.S. to send F-16s to Ukraine have generated a lot of attention, a top Pentagon official told lawmakers Tuesday that the planes are not one of Kyiv's top three requests and that there would be no advantage in the U.S. providing training now ahead of any potential delivery of the aircraft.
Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's top policy official, told the House Armed Services Committee that President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about F-16s during Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv last week and that Ukraine's "top priorities are air defense systems ... keeping their interceptors and our defense network alive against Russian cruise missiles and the Iranian drones, artillery and fires which we've talked about, and armored and mechanized systems."
He said the fastest available timeline of delivery of the aircraft and potential training would be 18 months.
"So, you don't actually save yourself time by starting the training early in our assessment. And since we haven't made the decision to provide F-16s and neither have our allies and partners. It doesn't make sense to start training them on a system they may never get."
Overall, Kahl said, giving Ukraine new F-16s would take three to six years and giving it older versions would take 18-24 months.
Last Friday, in an exclusive interview with ABC News anchor David Muir, President Joe Biden was asked about Zelenskyy publicly pushing the U.S. for F-16s.
"You don't think he needs F-16s now?" Muir Biden.
"No, he doesn't need F-16s now," Biden responded.
Asked by Muir if that meant "never," Biden said there was no way to know exactly what the Ukraine's defense would require in the future, but that "there is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military now, to provide F-16s."
"I am ruling it out for now," Biden said.
Kalh said what the Ukrainians have asked for is a mix of 128 U.S. made aircraft, including F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s.
The U.S. Air Force believes that, over the long term, Ukraine would need 50 to 80 F-16s to replace its existing air force, but that would require newly built F-16s which would cost $10 to $11 billion dollars, he said.
Getting only half that number with slightly older versions would still cost $2 billion to $3 billion dollars, he said, making the argument that it made more sense to use comparable amounts of money now to meet Ukraine's needs for for Patriots and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the current fight.