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Biden’s reluctance to donate Ukrainian F-16s faces scrutiny in Congress



Ukrainian forces would need at least 18 months to learn how to fly and maintain F-16 fighter jets in combat, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday as the Biden administration continued to field questions about the reasons for frequent demand from Kiev and, more and more. , some US politicians remain dissatisfied.

The question has haunted the administration for months, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to make regular public pleas for the planes and US lawmakers wonder why Ukrainian pilots aren’t being trained to learn how they operate.

I think that conversation is going to continue,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told members of the House Armed Services Committee. In the best-case scenario, he said, older F-16s could be transferred within about 18 months. Purchasing and delivering new aircraft, he noted, could take up to six years, adding that US Air Force personnel estimated that for Ukraine to modernize its fleet of aircraft from combat, it will probably need about 80 jet planes.

“It’s just hard for me to say to a member of Congress, to the American public, that the best use of that dollar spent right now is on the F-16s,” Kahl said.

President Biden said last week that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now,” underscoring the expectation of his top military advisers that when the next phase of the war begins to ramp up with the spring thaw, it will look a lot like the grueling, bloody terrain. campaign that left tens of thousands dead and injured on both sides.

The Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee convened Tuesday’s hearing amid growing skepticism within a segment of the party, and among some Democrats, about the amount of aid Washington has authorized. to help Ukraine repel invading Russian forces. The GOP, as a whole, has pledged to carry out rigorous checks on the tens of billions of dollars in arms and cash that the administration has provided to the Kyiv government. Generally, however, members of both political parties agreed during the session that is appropriate, with most seeming to avoid the highly partisan theatrics that have come to dominate congressional dialogue on many issues.

One Republican, Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.), even congratulated the president on his visit last week to Kiev, where, alongside Zelensky, he marked the first anniversary of the war.

While an outspoken minority of Republicans questioned whether Washington really should help Ukraine, several others joined Democrats in considering whether the administration is moving fast enough to deliver the kinds of advanced weapons that could help Ukraine. Zelensky’s army to drive the Russians out of occupied areas. and give kyiv the upper hand in all future peace negotiations.

“From the beginning, the president was too worried, in my opinion, that giving Ukraine what they need to win would be too intensive,” said Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman. of the committee. “This hesitation only prolonged the war and drove up the cost in terms of dollars and lives.”

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) noted that a bipartisan group of lawmakers has repeatedly called on the administration over the past year to provide long-range missiles in addition to the F-16s. While Ukrainian officials may have more immediate priorities, such as obtaining additional air defenses to protect people and civilian infrastructure from Russian missile and drone attacks, “they would certainly prefer their five or six or ten main needs or capacities are met”. said Golden.

The committee’s lead Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), followed the administration’s view more closely, saying that while “everyone has become obsessed” with the F-16s in recent weeks, the supply of advanced aircraft would entail considerable expense. but no immediate gain. Instead, Biden officials have indicated that any effort to modernize Ukraine’s air force should accompany a broader discussion of the country’s needs to maintain its security once the war is over.

“We might be able to get operational F-16s to Ukraine within a year, maybe eight months if we really push it,” Smith said. “And that’s luck, okay?” Because it is not enough to train the pilots, you have to train the mechanics, you have to have airfields that can accommodate the F-16 and you have to have the spare parts to make it work. So we looked at that and determined that it wasn’t a wise use of the resources needed to win the fight.

In a separate hearing later on Tuesday, senior US defense officials said Russia’s formidable air defenses also remained a serious concern for any aircraft deployed by Ukraine.

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, a senior Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff officer, told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that while Ukraine’s military was able to perform some air support missions with the planes it owns, the challenges the commanders face would not be overcome if they were American-made planes clashing with Russian systems.

A Republican at that hearing, Rep. Mike Garcia (California), said that while the United States had helped a “noble fight” led by Ukrainians over the past year, he grew concerned as the conversation in Washington has shifted to more important weapons.

“My question is, is there a meaningful conversation where, rather than just listening to what the Ukrainians are asking, we actually have a tactical and strategic dialogue with them and ask them what they are trying to achieve. accomplish, then pair a weapon system?” said Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot. “I’m afraid we’re being distracted by the stupidity of asking for F-16s.”

Tuesday The hearings were notable for the broad sense of agreement between Republicans and Democrats in favor of stricter accounting for the vast amount of military equipment sent to the war zone. Kahl, asked about the possibility of US-supplied weapons falling into the wrong hands, said the Pentagon had seen “no evidence” of diversion.

“We think the Ukrainians are using what they received correctly,” he said.

Department of Defense Inspector General Robert Storch described his team’s work as aggressive, continuous and sprawling. To date, he said, his findings were “limited,” however. When questioned, Storch refrained from saying that no weapons had gone missing in Ukraine, telling Rep. John Garamendi (D.-California) that so far inspectors have found no major issues.

The hearing was called two weeks after Rogers, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Poland and Romania intended to observe how the U.S. military delivers and tracks the weapons it supplies to Ukraine. Lawmakers released a joint statement after their trip calling for greater transparency on the issue.

“The American people have every right to know that US military equipment donated to Ukraine is being used for its intended purpose – Ukraine’s fight for national survival,” the lawmakers said. They added that they “came away with a clear understanding of the various safeguards” that were put in place after a briefing with the US general overseeing the effort, but cautioned that “should we confirm that items of defense are diverted, diverted or miss the flow of American equipment would cease to be tenable.

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: The life of every Ukrainian has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely focused on a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.

One year of separated life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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