Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that European allies are developing a coordinated programme to train Ukrainian forces on the F-16 fighter jet, but Pentagon leaders warned that it will be a costly and complex task and won't be a magic solution to the war.
Austin said the allies recognise that in addition to training, Ukraine will also need to be able to sustain and maintain the aircraft and have enough munitions. And he said air defence systems are still the weapons that Ukraine needs most in the broader effort to control the airspace.
"There are no magic weapons," said Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke alongside Austin at a Pentagon press conference. He said providing 10 F-16s could cost $2.0 billion, including maintenance.
"The Russians have a thousand fourth and fifth-generation fighters, so if you're going to contest Russia in the air, you're going to need a substantial amount of fourth and fifth-generation fighters."
As a result, he said, allies did the right thing by first providing Ukraine with a significant amount of integrated air defence to cover the battlespace. He said F-16s have a future role as part of Ukraine's air capabilities, but it's "going to take a considerable length of time to build up an air force that's the size and scope and scale that would be necessary."
Austin said the Dutch and Danish defence ministers are working with the U.S. on the effort, and that Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to contribute to the training. In addition, he said the allies will set up a fund so that other nations can contribute to the overall effort.
"We expect more countries to join this important initiative," Austin said, adding that the training is "an important example of our long-term commitment to Ukraine security."
Austin earlier in the day said he hopes that training for Ukrainian pilots on American-made F-16 fighter jets will begin in the coming weeks, bolstering Ukraine in the long run but not necessarily as part of an anticipated spring counteroffensive against Russia.
Austin and Milley spoke at the close of a virtual meeting of defence leaders from around the world to discuss the ongoing military support for Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders gave them an update on the war effort and the military gaps that troops are facing. Austin said the biggest gap continues to be ground-based air defence.
The leaders, in their 12th meeting, heard about ongoing combat operations and the counteroffensive and discussed how the allies, who have faced their own stockpile pressures, can continue to support Kyiv's fight against Russia. Ukrainian officials have not formally announced the launch of their much-anticipated counteroffensive, although some say it has already begun and the pace of attacks suggests it's underway.
"We're going to have to dig deeper, and we're going to have to continue to look for creative ways to boost our industrial capability," Austin said before the military leaders began their closed session. "The stakes are high. But the cause is just and our will is strong."
European leaders have said they are talking about which countries may have some of the F-16s available. The United States had long balked at providing the advanced aircraft to Ukraine, and only last weekend did President Joe Biden agree to allow other nations to send their own U.S.-made jets to Kyiv.
"We hope this training will begin in the coming weeks," Austin said. "This will further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian Air Force in the long term. And it will complement our short-term and medium-term security agreements. This new joint effort sends a powerful message about our unity and our long-term commitment to Ukraine's self-defence."
European allies have been vocal in their support for the fighter jet training in recent days.
Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said Tuesday that training for Ukrainian pilots had begun in Poland and some other countries, though Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said training was still in the planning phase. The Netherlands and Denmark, among others, are also making plans for training.
"We can continue and also finalise the plans that we're making with Denmark and other allies to start these trainings. And of course, that is the first step that you have to take," Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said.
Ukraine has long sought the sophisticated fighter to give it a combat edge as it battles Russia's invasion, now in its second year.
The Biden administration's decision was a sharp reversal after refusing to approve any transfer of the aircraft or conduct training for more than a year because of worries that doing so could escalate tensions with Russia. U.S. officials also had argued against the F-16 by saying that learning to fly and logistically support such an advanced aircraft would be difficult and take months.