Addressing MPs in a packed Westminster Hall, Volodymyr Zelensky stressed he was “thanking you in advance for powerful English planes”. He then presented Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle with the helmet of a Ukrainian pilot inscribed “we have freedom, give us wings to protect it”.
Hours earlier, Rishi Sunak had announced that Britain would offer training to Ukrainian pilots to fly modern warplanes: they are likely to undergo courses on RAF Hawks, Eurofighter Typhoons and F-35 Lightnings. There is already a plan in place to train Ukrainian helicopter pilots at the Shawbury base, as Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton confirmed to the Commons Defence Committee last week.
Last month, French defence minister Sébastien Lecornu said his country was considering a request to train Ukrainian pilots on French warplanes, while in the US, Congress has approved $100 million to train Ukrainians on American planes as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act.
Downing Street has said that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is considering what fast jets can be sent to Ukraine. It remains to be seen if Kyiv will get the “powerful English plane” it wants, be it the Typhoon – built by a British, German, Italian, Spanish and Austrian consortium – or the F-35 – from a combined US, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada effort – rather than alternatives.
The warplane the Ukrainians are most likely to get are American F-16s. This would make sense in terms of operational support and maintenance and the type of planes the Ukrainians need, just as German Leopard 2s were the logical tanks for their army.
Training on Hawks and Typhoons for F-16s does not present a problem. As Air Marshal Greg Barwell, a former RAF commander who is now an advisor to RUSI ( Royal United Services Institute) points out: “The UK has synthetic training facilities, which can be used to train on modern tactics and weapon employment. Learning to fly an aircraft is a relatively simple transition. Learning how to use the systems to maximum effect is the key part and transferable to most modern types.”
No decision has been made yet on the F-16s. But the chances are that Ukraine will get them, just as they got Himars (High Mobility Artillery System) and MLRS ( Multiple Launched Rocket Systems) after Nato initially prevaricated, saying that sending long-range modern artillery would provoke Moscow. The same narrative unfolded with tanks.
At the end of January, US President Joe Biden said he was against sending advanced warplanes to Ukraine. But just last week, the deputy National Security adviser for the White House Jon Finer said the US would discuss the idea of giving fighter jets to Ukraine “very carefully” with Kyiv and allies. “We have not ruled in or out any specific systems. We have tried to tailor our assistance to the phase of the fight the Ukrainians are in,” he said.
Rishi Sunak says ‘nothing off the table’ when it comes to supporting Ukraine
The Dutch foreign minister, Wopke Hoekstra, told his parliament earlier this month there were “no taboos” about sending F-16s. This was echoed by Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who added, however: “It would be a very big next step.”
Olaf Schulz, the German chancellor, has complained about what he termed rivalry between Nato allies to arm Ukraine. He declared: “The question of combat aircraft does not arise at all. I can only advise against entering into a constant competition to outbid each other when it comes to weapons systems … We preserve and strengthen this cohesion by first preparing decisions confidentially, and only then communicating them.”
Mr Schulz had been seemingly steadfast against allowing the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. But in the end he had to carry out a volte-face. Intense Ukrainian lobbying, led by President Zelensky, pays off.