The F-16 Debate

The foreign policy debate rattling Washington this week is whether the United States should acquiesce to its Western allies by agreeing to provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. This debate arose once again when the United Kingdom and the Netherlands announced plans to provide F-16s to Ukraine, pitting the United States and some of its closest European allies against one another, yet again.

Dubbed the “Fighting Falcon,” the F-16 is a “supersonic fighter jet used by militaries in 25 countries for air-to-air combat and air-to-ground strikes.” First flown in 1976, the American military used this fighter jet in many of its conflicts during the latter part of twentieth and into the twenty-first century, including the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf. Lockheed Martin, an American defense contractor, builds the F-16s, which comes at a hefty price of $63 million. The F-16s are versatile, allowing for both offensive and defensive capabilities.

One challenge stands in the way of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands’ plan: the Biden administration. While several European allies are pressuring U.S. President Joe Biden to agree to sending the F-16s to Ukraine, the pressure is also coming from American legislators from both parties and the Ukrainian government.

However, Biden administration officials have long held that they do not believe this is the right time in the war’s trajectory to provide Ukraine with this type of advanced fighter jet. “Our focus is on Ukrainian priorities for this fight and aircraft, while on the list, Western, modern aircraft is about eight on the list,” stated the a Pentagon official at a House Armed Services hearing in April. In short, the Biden administration remains unconvinced that the F-16 fighter jets would actually help Ukraine in its fight against Russia, even as talk of a spring offensive lingers.

Part of the Biden’s concern – true since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine in early 2022 – is fear that providing more powerful weapons to aid Kyiv’s fight against Russia would cause Moscow to escalate its attacks. Concerns about Russia’s escalation, minus the use of nuclear weapons, has died down a bit in recent months, as Western officials cannot fathom how the war in Ukraine could be any worse.

In reality, it all comes down to money. The Biden administration is reluctant to send the F-16s to Ukraine because “the plane’s multimillion-dollar price tag would absorb too much of an already-dwindling pot of war funding.” In a way, this makes sense as the Republican party is now voicing concerns about the cost of the war in Ukraine, and former President Donald Trump, in his run for the 2024 GOP candidacy, would not commit to backing or sending aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

The Biden administration may give its European allies what it wants through the use of a loophole. As a rule, the United States must grant any European countries that purchased the F-16s approval to transfer them to a third country. The loophole – the fact that the Biden administration never ruled out approving third-party transfers, only objecting to the United States providing F-16s to Ukraine – could prove to be a way forward. As the debate heats up, Washington may be able to give its European allies their wish without abandoning their stance.

Several European countries – and members of both parties in the United States – maintain that the F-16 has become “the latest advanced weapon that Ukraine and some of its backers say it needs to stave of Russia,” both in its current fight and in the future. Officials in European, and even some in the United States, think the F-16 could be a “key deterrent to future aggression against Ukraine.” British Defense Minister, Ben Wallace, summed up Europe’s wish to provide Ukraine with F-16s by noting, “What’s really important here is to signal to Russia that we as nations have no philosophical or principled objection to supplying Ukraine capabilities that it needs…”

Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, after meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, announced earlier this week the beginning of a coalition that would work to send the F-16 jets to Ukraine. Belgium quickly followed suit. The Netherlands, along with the United Kingdom, is one of a few countries within NATO that are transitioning from the F-16s to the F-35s, another popular fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin. This transition will free up planes in the coming years, allowing these countries more easily send the F-16s to Ukraine should the United States grant third-country transfer approval. The Netherlands, along with those from Denmark and Belgium, could provide “125 combat-ready F-16s,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London. Norway, another NATO ally, retired some F-16s in 2022 and is prepared to send the jets to Ukraine as well.

The most recent debate in Washington over whether to provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine in concert with its European allies wishes – similar to previous debates about sending highly sought after tanks to Ukraine – is causing a new rift between the United States and its European allies. Despite surprising the world with the unity in the commitment of giving Ukraine the weapons and aid it needs to fight Russia, there have been points during the course of the war in which cleavages between the United States and Europe become visible. As Mr. Biden travels to Japan for the G-7 meeting to speak with some of the United States closest allies, analysts expect this issue to loom over talks, and expect the debate to last until the NATO summit in Lithuania in July.

This is not the first time the Biden administration stood firm against providing advanced weaponry to Ukraine. Each case – HIMARS missile launchers, Abrams tanks, and Patriot air defense missiles – was eventually resolved with the Biden administration finally relenting. There is no doubt that this fissure between the United States and Europe will resolve itself in the near future, closing any existing gap once again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



%d bloggers like this: