Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kyiv has received an increasing amount of military hardware from Western and NATO countries. Weapon systems like the Patriot air defense missile and NATO main battle tanks have given Ukraine's military an upgrade from its Soviet-era equipment and an advantage over the Russian military. One battlefield domain where Ukraine was not provided an upgrade was the air.
Although Poland opened the door to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets, a plane that the Ukrainian Air Force is already trained on, Kyiv's requests for NATO fighter jets were consistently denied. Ukraine specifically wanted F-16 Fighting Falcons to bolster its air defense system and give its pilots an edge over the Russians in the air. However, the F-16 is U.S. military hardware and could not be exported to Ukraine by any other country without the approval of the U.S. government.
On May 19, 2023, at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the U.S. greenlit the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine. During a White House press briefing the next day, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced that, "President Biden informed his G7 counterparts that the United States will support a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including F-16s." He went on to note that "as the training unfolds in the coming months, we will work with our allies to determine when planes will be delivered, who will be delivering them, and how many."
Although the U.S. is not directly providing F-16s, the training of Ukrainian pilots is key to Ukraine's operation of the NATO jet. Prior to the G7 announcement, the British government announced its intention to provide basic training to Ukrainian pilots. The change in U.S. policy to support Ukrainian pilot training and allow for the transfer of fourth-generation fighters is significant and represents a step toward Ukraine's integration with NATO.
Although the door is now open for Ukraine to receive F-16s and other Western fighters, the details of the potential transfers are yet to be determined. "The obvious first step there is to do the training and then to work with allies and partners and the Ukrainians to determine how to do the actual provision of planes as we move forward," Sullivan said.
The F-16 is a versatile and relatively cost-effective fighter, making it an extremely popular export. It has seen extensive combat in service with the Israeli Air Force and is operated by European countries that have already provided military aid to Ukraine. This includes Denmark whose Defence Minister, Troels Lund Poulsen, said that his country "will now be able to move forward for a collective contribution to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s."