What fighter jets has Volodymyr Zelensky asked for and what might he get?
Addressing MPs in a packed Westminster Hall, Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that he was “thanking [us] in advance for powerful English planes”. He then presented speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle with the helmet of a Ukrainian pilot inscribed: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
Hours earlier, Rishi Sunak had announced that Britain would offer training to Ukrainian pilots to fly modern warplanes: they are likely to undergo courses on RAF Hawks, Eurofighter Typhoons and F-35 Lightnings. There is already a plan in place to train Ukrainian helicopter pilots at the Shawbury base in Shropshire, as Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton confirmed to the Commons defence committee last week.
Last month, French defence minister Sebastien Lecornu said his country was considering a request to train Ukrainian pilots on French warplanes, while in the US, Congress has approved $100m (£83m) to train Ukrainians on American planes as part of the National Defence Authorization Act.
Downing Street has said that defence secretary Ben Wallace is considering what fast jets can be sent to Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether Kyiv will get the “powerful English planes” it wants, be they Typhoons – built by a British, German, Italian, Spanish and Austrian consortium; or F-35s – a joint project of the US, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada – rather than alternative aircraft.
The warplanes the Ukrainians are most likely to get are American F-16s. This would make sense in terms of operational support and maintenance, and they are the type of plane the Ukrainians need, just as German Leopard 2s are the logical tanks for their army.
Training on Hawks and Typhoons in order to fly F-16s does not present a problem. As Air Marshal Greg Barwell, a former RAF commander who is now an adviser to RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) points out: “The UK has synthetic training facilities, which can be used to train on modern tactics and weapon employment. Learning to fly an aircraft is a relatively simple transition. Learning how to use the systems to maximum effect is the key part, and transferable to most modern types.”
No decision has yet been made on the F-16s. But the chances are that Ukraine’s forces will get them, just as they got HIMARS (high-mobility artillery systems) and MLRS (multiple-launch rocket systems) after Nato initially prevaricated by saying that sending long-range modern artillery would provoke Moscow. The same narrative unfolded with tanks.
At the end of January, US president Joe Biden said he was against sending advanced warplanes to Ukraine. But just last week, the deputy national security adviser for the White House, Jon Finer, said the US would discuss the idea of giving fighter jets to Ukraine “very carefully” with Kyiv and its allies. “We have not ruled in or out any specific systems. We have tried to tailor our assistance to the phase of the fight the Ukrainians are in,” he said.
The Dutch foreign minister, Wopke Hoekstra, told his parliament earlier this month that there were “no taboos” about sending F-16s. This was echoed by Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, though he added: “It would be a very big next step.”
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has complained about what he termed rivalry among Nato allies to arm Ukraine. He declared: “The question of combat aircraft does not arise at all. I can only advise against entering into a constant competition to outbid each other when it comes to weapons systems ... We preserve and strengthen this cohesion by first preparing decisions confidentially, and only then communicating them.”
Mr Scholz had seemingly been steadfast against allowing the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. But in the end he had to carry out a volte-face. Intense Ukrainian lobbying, led by President Zelensky, pays off.