A bipartisan group of senators called on the Pentagon on Tuesday to “take a hard look” at sending advanced U.S. fighter jets to Ukraine to aid the country in its war with Russia.
The group of eight senators, led by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), wrote in a letter to Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the U.S. was “at a critical juncture in the conflict” and asked Austin to answer numerous questions on the possibility of sending Ukraine F-16 aircraft.
“After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine,” the senators wrote.
In addition to Kelly, senators signing on to the letter were:
- Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)
- Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
- Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC)
- Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
- Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL)
- Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV)
“This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield,” they added, noting they were “encouraged” by reports that two Ukrainian pilots had recently visited Morris Air National Guard Base in Kelly’s home state for a training assessment that included using an F-16 simulator.
The letter comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly publicly urged the U.S. to provide F-16s as part of his wish list of powerful military items.
The White House has so far rejected Zelensky’s request despite bipartisan pressure from some congressmembers, including now Kelly’s group, to deliver or at least consider delivering for the Ukrainian president.
“We’re sending him what our seasoned military thinks he needs now,” President Joe Biden told ABC’s David Muir in an interview in February when asked about the F-16s specifically.
Asked by Muir again on the matter, Biden said, “No he doesn’t need F-16s now. … There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military now, to provide F-16s.”
“But you’re not ruling it out?” Muir pressed.
“I am ruling it out for now,” Biden said.
In their letter, the senators asked Austin to respond to several questions by March 17, including how Ukraine would benefit from F-16s and if Ukrainian pilots were equipped to operate them.
Their letter adds to the pressure on the Biden administration to ramp up its military support for Ukraine but is not quite as direct as calls made by some other members of Congress.
In February, Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) led 15 House Republicans and Democrats in asking Biden to “provide Ukraine with increased air superiority capability, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft requested by Kiev, or similar fourth-generation aircraft, as soon as possible.”
They contended, “The provision of such aircraft is necessary to help Ukraine protect its airspace, particularly in light of renewed Russian offensives and considering the expected increase in large-scale combat operations.”
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) recently told NBC’s Meet the Press he was frustrated that Biden has “slow-rolled critical military weapons systems,” adding that “it took nine months to get them the Patriots and I fear the same thing is happening right now with the F-16s.”
Views on if or how to support Ukraine have been varied, however, and not all members are on board with U.S. taxpayers funding a multibillion-dollar overseas war that has no clear, foreseeable ending.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has warned that the House will not continue to support writing a “blank check” to Ukraine, and 11 House Republicans, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), announced in February they were backing a “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution” to end all funding to Ukraine and urge instead for a peace agreement.