Kendall: F-16s Not a ‘Game-Changer’ for Ukraine But ‘Something They Need’

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said May 22 that Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon in a matter of months and the aircraft will be an important element of the nation’s future defense capability.

“They’re very motivated,” Kendall told the Defense Writers Group. “Everything we’ve done with the Ukrainians, they’ve shown a capacity to learn. 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 and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said last July Ukraine would eventually need Western aircraft to replace their aging Soviet-legacy planes and build an air force for the future.

But President Joe Biden’s administration later made it clear that getting F-16s to Ukraine was not a priority, largely because it would take time to train Ukrainian airmen and because it was worried providing the plane could escalate tensions with Russia.

That changed last week when Biden gave the green light to a plan by European nations to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s. It is still unclear when the planes might be provided to Ukraine, how many will be transferred, and which nations will send them.

“It’s something they need to do,” Kendall said. “It’s something that makes sense for them. It’s going to help them.”

To address White House concerns over escalation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Biden that Kyiv would not use the plane to fly over Russian territory to strike targets there.

“I have a flat assurance from Zelenskyy that they will not use it to go on and move onto Russian geographic territory, but wherever Russian troops are within Ukraine and the area, they would be able to do that,” Biden told reporters at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Roughly 60 Ukrainian warplanes have been downed during the conflict as of March. The F-16 would help Ukraine build back its air force with Western kit to contend with Russia’s larger and more advanced air force. As a multi-role aircraft, it could provide air support for Ukrainian troops, attack ground targets, intercept Russian cruise missiles, and fend off attacks by Russian planes.

“The F-16 is a reasonable option for them for a whole bunch of reasons,” Kendall said. “It will give Ukrainians an increment of capabilities 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.”

So far, Ukraine’s air defenses have been effective at preventing the Russians from gaining control of the skies over the country. But the British government said May 22 that Russia is trying to establish a new attack aviation group that would include Su-24s, Su-34s, and attack helicopters.

“The mix of aircraft types suggests the group will have a primary role of ground attack missions,” the British government said in an intelligence update. “Credible Russian media reports suggest that the Russian [Ministry of Defense] aims to attract highly skilled and motivated pilots by offering large pay incentives and opening recruitment to retired officers.”