Ukraine pushes US Congress members for F-16 jet fighter-legislators

Ukraine pushes US Congress members for F-16 jet fighter-legislators

By Jonathan Land

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) – Ukrainian officials urged U.S. members of Congress to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration to send F-16 jetfighters to Kiev, saying the aircraft would boost Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian missile units with U.S.-made rockets, lawmakers said.

The lobbying came over the weekend on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in talks between Ukrainian officials, including Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“They told us they (F-16s) want to suppress enemy air defenses so they can get their drones out of the Russian front line,” Senator Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who flew US Navy fighters in combat, told Reuters on Saturday evening.

Biden said “no” last month when asked whether he would approve Ukraine’s request for Lockheed-Martin-built F-16s.

The four delegations from the Senate and House together showed clear bipartisan support for Ukraine, marking the largest number of US lawmakers to attend Europe’s main security gathering since it began in 1963.

The conference – focused primarily on Ukraine – came just days before the 24th anniversary of Russia’s invasion Following a string of Russian defeats, the sides have been locked in a grinding war, mostly in the eastern Donbas region.

Kelly and three other lawmakers who spoke to Reuters about their discussions with Ukrainian officials believe support is being built in Congress to provide Ukraine with the F-16, one of the world’s most versatile multi-role jetfighters.

The Ukrainian Air Force has adapted US-made AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface rockets to fire from their Soviet-designed MiG-29 jetfighters. The rockets enter the electronic transmission from the surface-to-air missile unit’s radar.

The Ukrainians said their pilots could more effectively target Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense missile units with the AGM-88 if the rockets were fired using the F-16s’ more advanced avionics, the lawmakers said.

“They claimed they needed this aircraft for their SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) mission,” Kelly said. “They probably think they can do a better job of taking the S-400s.”

He said that while mastering all of the F-16’s capabilities would require at least a year of training, Ukrainian pilots could be taught to do “a limited number of things…” in a matter of months.

Support is being built on both sides of the Atlantic to provide advanced NATO-standard jetfighters to Ukraine. Britain said it would train.

Both sides have been reluctant to use their airpower significantly since the start of the war.

The call to supply Ukraine with advanced jet fighters follows an agreement last month by France, Britain, the US and Germany to supply Kiev with modern battle tanks.

Washington has given nearly $30 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the start of what Moscow calls its “special military operation.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Land; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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