Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III began initiating the Biden administration’s turnaround on providing Ukrainian fighter pilots with training on F-16 jets last month, after European allies told him that they wanted to go ahead with the training, a U.S. defense official said on Monday.
Mr. Austin led a meeting on April 21 of top defense officials from about 50 nations — a collective known as the Ukraine Contact Group — at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on April 21.
On his return to Washington, Mr. Austin told senior Biden administration officials that the time had come to alter the stance against the training, and to, at the very least, move toward letting other countries give the planes to Ukraine, according to the official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations. F-16s would represent a major upgrade of the Ukrainian air force’s assets and capabilities.
After Russia invaded Ukraine almost exactly 15 months ago, officials in Kyiv pleaded for advanced warplanes to overcome Russian air superiority. But the White House, acting on advice from senior Pentagon officials, had resisted. The concern was that the jets could be used to hit targets deep inside Russia, potentially prompting the Kremlin to escalate its assault on Ukraine. Pentagon officials also said that other weapons, especially those used for air defense, were needed more urgently, and that the high cost of the F-16s — up to $63 million each, depending on the model — could mean that other weapons and supplies would be squeezed out.
But the U.S. resistance followed a familiar pattern. The Pentagon eventually reversed course, as it did on providing Ukraine with American M1 Abrams tanks. Several European NATO countries with F-16s in their arsenals called for an international effort to provide the training and transfer the jets to Ukraine. Doing so requires American permission, because the weapons were made and sold to them by the United States.
Mr. Austin got unanimous agreement from senior Biden national security officials, the defense official said. Just before the Group of 7 meeting last week, Mr. Austin made a formal recommendation to President Biden.
That recommendation was that Mr. Biden “proceed with approving allies to train the Ukrainians and transfer capability,” the official said. The planes — which are considered “fourth generation” warplanes, as measured by factors like speed, guidance systems, surveillance capabilities, stealth and weapons — are not expected to play a role in Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive, because the training will take months.
But “Secretary Austin did believe Ukraine should have a fourth-generation air capability at some point, so proceeding with training made sense,” the official said.