Although Ukrainian officials insist they need modern combat aircraft like F-16s to repel Russia’s invasion, the jets wouldn’t make a “critical difference in the fight,” and Ukraine has more urgent needs, Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said Feb. 7.
In an online Defense Writers Group discussion, Reed also discussed the possibility of deep defense budget cuts and Congressional reactions to the Chinese surveillance balloon that recently crossed the U.S.
F-16s to Ukraine?
When evaluating any lethal aid request from Ukraine, the U.S. needs to determine whether it would make a difference “in their fighting model,” Reed said. And F-16s “at this juncture … are not the most pressing need” for Ukrainian forces.
Rather, “ammunition, fighting vehicles—the tanks, I think, will be more decisive—indirect fire, the longer-range rocket system, HIMARS … all of that will have a more immediate impact” than fighters, and would be “much more easily adapted” into Ukrainian forces, Reed argued.
The air defense situation in Ukraine also wouldn’t allow for F-16s to be used “effectively” yet, Reed said.
The Ukrainians “have jet aircraft right now; Russian models that they use. They fly them infrequently, because the airspace is not permissive. It’s extremely difficult to get up in the air,” he explained.
“What they do is take off and fly at treetop levels until they reach their target, and they bounce up to the safest [altitude at which] they can drop their ordnance,” and try to return to base.
“They’ve lost some pilots doing that,” he said.
“So you have to ask yourself,” Reed continued: “what would the F-16 add? You’re not going to be able to take advantage of its range, its altitude, and those things because the airspace is not at all permissive.”
However, Reed did leave open the possibility of considering F-16s for the long term.
Beyond the question of F-16s, though, Ukraine is getting “a significant integration of advice and assistance coming from the West, not just the United States, but NATO, almost on a minute-by-minute basis,” Reed said. “And that advice, I think, is very, very helpful for them. We tend to focus on hardware rather than advice, assistance, intelligence, helping them connect their software etc. That might be more vital in this context, than an F-16.”
The senior lawmaker did say he is in favor of sending Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), to Ukraine, because ATACMS “can hit back further” than the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) the U.S. has previously given.
“What the Russians have done is they’ve moved back some of their command and control centers and depots to avoid the GMLRS. … So we have to get longer range systems in [to] disrupt their command and control, and supply,” Reed said.
Amid speculation and reports of a fresh offensive from the Russians, Reed said he thinks Ukraine “will hold” and go on an offensive of its own when equipped with the tanks and armored vehicle package just announced. Reed also praised the Ukrainians for showing “great ingenuity in taking the equipment we’ve given them and keeping it running,” and for their work with electronic warfare.
Should that offensive succeed in pushing the Russians to the point that they are “retreating en masse” and “nonfunctional,” Reed said he sees heightened danger of nuclear weapons being used by Russia, especially if the Ukrainians advance on Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“That’s where this discussion would heat up tremendously within the Kremlin,“ he said, before noting “it’s not that easy” to guess what Russia would do in those circumstances.
For the U.S., the biggest lesson learned from Ukraine was that the industrial base was not adequately configured to surge munitions production, and this is something Congress will be taking up in the coming year, Reed said.
The idea that weapon systems will be immediately canceled “if we determine it is not effective” for U.S. forces, “… that’s not going to happen immediately,” he added.
Reed also expressed skepticism about a proposal from some Republicans to cap defense spending at fiscal 2022 levels—which would mark a 10 percent cut—as a bargaining chip for raising the national debt limit.
“It would be a roughly $70-$80 billion cut,” Reed said, “at a time we’re in the midst of supporting active conflict; at a time we are seeing … provocative behavior by the Chinese. … I don’t think that would be an appropriate number and I don’t think it will receive a lot of bipartisan support here in the Senate.”
Asked about the Chinese reconnaissance balloon that an Air Force F-22 shot down Feb. 5, Reed said he believes the situation was “handled very well” to avoid endangering people on the ground, and President Joe Biden “took steps to minimize whatever it was meant to gather” in the way of intelligence.
Like other members of Congress, Reed said he’s puzzled about why China sent the balloon, since “they can actually get probably more information from the satellites that are already flying above us than from a balloon. So it’s very difficult to determine why they did this.”
He also said one of the questions needing attention is “what was the point, and who ordered it? … What was the motivation? … What were they trying to accomplish? And what does that signal to us?” about China’s power structure.
“This could be one of those situations where this was not a policy decision made by [Chinese president Xi Jinping], but something below, and I think we have to look at that,” Reed suggested.
But the U.S. military is now recovering the surveillance package carried by the balloon, and “at the end of the day, we’ll probably gain more intelligence from this operation than the Chinese,” which makes it “an awkward moment for them.”
Congress will be briefed on the incident next week.
One likely outcome is that Congress will insist on “denying any access to our airspace by China or anyone else,” Reed said. Congress will “certainly look” at any capability gaps exposed by the incident.