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Biden Ruled Out F-16s for Ukraine. But the Debate Over Fighter Jets Is Starting to Roar

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Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda said Tuesday that NATO members must send fighter jets and long range missiles to Ukraine, and that a “turning point is about to happen” in regards to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The comments underscore a growing debate among Western allies over whether to dispatch jets to Kyiv.

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron signaled an openness to sending fighter jets to Ukraine. “By definition, nothing is excluded,” he said at a press conference in the Hague.

But key Western powers have stated their opposition to such proposals. U.S. President Biden was firm that Washington will not provide Kyiv with F-16s after Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister called for allied Western nations to form a “fighter jet coalition.” Answering reporters’ questions Monday about the matter, Biden replied: “No.”

Biden’s comments come a day after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said to Tagesspiegel that the “question of combat aircraft does not arise at all” and that his focus is on delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. “I can only advise against entering into a constant competition to outbid each other when it comes to weapons systems,” he added.

But Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk has asked allied nations to create a “fighter jet coalition” to match Russia’s supply.

Below, what to know about Ukrainian calls for Western fighter jets in the conflict.

Why does Ukraine need fighter jets?

Ukraine currently relies on its Soviet-era fighter jets, which were made before Kyiv declared independence from the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. These aircrafts have been overpowered by Russia’s heavy duty jets that can fire missiles from a long range without entering Ukrainian airspace.

Calls for fighter jets include F-16s and F-35s from the U.S., Eurofighters, Tornados, French Rafales, and Swedish Gripen jets. Ukraine is also in need of helicopters, former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko told Euronews.

Eurofighter Typhoon And Spitfires Join Forces For RAF Celebration
An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon taxis before an aerial display on Sept. 2, 2008, in Sleaford, England.Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

Justin Bronk, a researcher at the RUSI think tank in London, tweeted that the Ukrainian Air Force would “absolutely benefit” from Western fighter jets “in terms of air-to-air and (potentially) air-to-ground lethality.” But, Bronk added, these jets would still be at high risk from Russian Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and therefore would need to fly at low altitudes within “several tens of kilometers of the front lines.”

Why are the U.S. and Germany reluctant to send fighter jets?

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said that talks about fighter jets were taking place with allied nations but some held a “conservative attitude” that he said was “due to fear of changes in the international architecture.”

U.S. officials had reportedly seemed open to the possibility of sending jets, with an anonymous senior DoD official telling Politico ahead of Biden’s comments Monday, “I don’t think we are opposed.”

Both Washington and Berlin have resisted calls for sending heavier weapons to Ukraine in the past. But the U.S. and Germany agreed Wednesday to send 31 Abrams tanks and 80 Leopard 2 tanks. Berlin is also permitting European partners to re-export their own supplies of the German-made tanks.

Leopard tank
A Leopard Tank during a presentation by a German unit on May 20, 2019 in Munster, Germany.Morris MacMatzen—Getty Images

Scholz defended his cautionary approach to sending tanks on Wednesday, saying that it “was right and it is right that we did not allow ourselves to be rushed” into a decision. The U.S. promise of a future delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine opened the door for a cautious Germany to send Leopard 2s, NBC News reported.

Which allies are likely to supply fighter jets?

Over half a dozen Western military officials and diplomats told Politico that preliminary fighter jet debates were underway.

Meanwhile, some European nations have openly discussed the prospect of sending fighter jets. In addition to France signaling its openness to supplying fighter jets, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday there are “no taboos” when it comes to providing Ukraine with aid. He added, though, that it was a big next step.

F-35 Aircrafts Were Relocated By The Kingdom Of The Netherlands To The Republic Of Bulgaria
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II jet before take off at Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base near Plovdiv, Bulgaria, on April 14, 2022.Georgi Paleykov—NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the year unfolds, dozens of modern Western aircrafts will be available as Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands upgrade to U.S. F-35 fighters, Politico reported.

What about the frigate Lübeck and Type 212A submarine?

Ukraine’s asks were not confined to the skies.

On Sunday, Melynk also called for Germany to send a decommissioned frigate Lübeck and Type 212A submarine, to strengthen its military position in the Black Sea.

Frigate "Lubeck" returns from Mediterranean mission
The frigate "Lubeck" arriving to the Wilhelmshaven Naval Base, Germany, on Nov. 10, 2017.Carmen Jaspersen—picture alliance via Getty Images

“Hi guys, I know I’m gonna get a new shit storm, but I have another creative idea. Germany (ThyssenKrupp) produces one of the world’s best submarines HDW Class 212A. The Bundeswehr has 6 such U-boats. Why not to send one to Ukraine?” Melynk tweeted, saying that it would allow Ukraine to control the strategic body of water.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com