Shooting down China’s surveillance balloon could be a good thing for US-China relations. Team Biden has been dithering for days over strategy
February 3, 2023 9:23am EST
It sure looks to me like China is taunting the Biden administration with this ridiculous spy balloon flight. Or, maybe China’s military just screwed up by sending over a giant marshmallow loitering spy balloon days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-anticipated visit to Beijing.
Both alternatives are scary. And either way, China’s spy balloon is a real slap in the face.
The balloon is trying to park high above airliner traffic, in unregulated airspace, and scoop up military data.
Honestly, the best thing for U.S.-China relations might be to shoot down this balloon. China’s foreign ministry sounded in a bit of a panic Friday with their spokesperson hoping “both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”
I guarantee you this balloon was tracked by U.S. and Canadian officials out over the Pacific. The White House has been dithering for days. Pity poor Blinken drinking tea in China while the balloon drifts over our nuclear bases.
It’s not the first time China’s intruded into American airspace, the Pentagon hinted Thursday. However, they had to acknowledge that the behavior of this balloon is a bit different.
Do you think for a moment that China would hesitate to shoot down a U.S. balloon?
Just look at the flight path. The spy balloon flight was timed to ride the winter jet stream for a pass along the Air Force’s northern tier missile and nuclear bomber bases. For example, Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base where 150 Minuteman III nuclear missile silos are spread over a wide area.
China is building large new nuclear missile fields, so maybe they wanted pictures of ours, like the drone footage you see on real estate websites. Except that as everyone knows, China has plenty of satellites capable of taking pictures. In fact, China doubled their satellites on orbit between 2019 and 2021, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
So, another strong possibility is that China wants the balloon to loiter in American skies long enough to detect radio, cell phone and other electronic communications often called “signals intelligence.” Swap “eyes in the sky” for “ears in the sky.”
From a tactical perspective, there’s still time to shoot this thing down. The Air Force F-22 stealth fighters mentioned by the Pentagon could easily track and target China’s balloon.
Picture the balloon bobbing along at 60,000 feet, as the Pentagon reported. The F-22 Raptor is the world’s most advanced fighter and carries a radar that can see dust grains on Mars.
Do you think for a moment that China would hesitate to shoot down a U.S. balloon? As I recall, the U.S. started flying drones into China’s airspace in the 1960s to collect data on China’s budding nuclear weapons programs. The wreckage of one supersonic DF-21 drone ended up in a Chinese aviation museum.
If Biden opts not to shoot down this balloon, there had better be consequences meted out to China in some form. China has no reason to send balloons to gather data on American nuclear bases. We have implored China to join nuclear arms control. Xi Jinping says no.
Back to China’s motives. It is entirely possible that the Chinese military authorized the balloon flight with no coordination regarding Blinken’s visit. This type of behavior is a worry because it reveals a clumsy approach to China’s internal command and control. How do you deter such a sloppy adversary?
Yet I wonder what is truly more dangerous: the spy balloon, or the quiet damage China’s already done to America. Collecting a little SIGINT with a balloon pales in comparison to the long-running penetration of so many levels of American society by interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
Let me give you just one example. Over in North Dakota, a Chinese-controlled company wants to build a corn wet milling plant on 370 acres they purchased near Grand Forks Air Force Base. Just imagine: a huge corn plant, far away from the main customers and replicating the work of 19 other major corn refining plants already running throughout the Midwest.
Twenty years ago this month, the US was rushing headlong into war with Iraq, one of the most consequential travesties in modern American history. Here is how one congressman and I tried and failed to get the Democratic Party on record opposing that war.
After 9/11, neoconservatives began their campaign to invade Iraq. Their arguments included: that Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorists; that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was secretly buying components to build a nuclear bomb; that the US was attacked because our enemies saw us as weak and to demonstrate our strength and resolve we needed a decisive victory somewhere (anywhere); and that a complete victory in Iraq would be quick, easy, require few troops, be welcomed by the Iraqi people and result in the establishment of a friendly stable democracy.
These outright fabrications or, at the very least, matters that demanded vigorous debate were not challenged. The mainstream media largely served as an echo chamber for the war-hawks and most leading politicians were shy to criticise.
In advance of the February 2003 meeting of the Democratic National Committee, (DNC) Representative Jesse Jackson Junior and I submitted a resolution to encourage debate on the impending war. Using temperate and respectful language, it called on our party to urge the Bush administration “to pursue diplomatic efforts to achieve disarmament of Iraq, to clearly define for the American people and Congress the objectives, costs, consequences, terms and length of commitment envisioned by any US engagement or action in Iraq and to continue to operate in the context of and seek the full support of the United Nations in any effort to resolve the current crisis in Iraq.”
Polling indicated that the majority of Americans and a supermajority of Democrats supported these positions. And we knew that if Democrats failed to challenge the rush to war, we would not only risk losing the support of voters, but also shirk our responsibility to avert a war that would prove devastating to our country and the Middle East region.
At the DNC meeting, party leaders subjected me to intense pressure to withdraw the resolution. They argued that we needed to defer to the Democratic presidential candidates. With only one major candidate, Howard Dean, vigorously opposed to the war, they claimed that such a resolution would imply support for his candidacy. And, in their view, opposing the war would make it appear that the party was weak on national defence.
I refused to withdraw the resolution and insisted on my right to introduce it and be heard.
In my remarks to the committee, I warned that it was unconscionable that we send young men and women to war in a country whose history, culture and social composition we did not understand. I observed that the administration’s miscalculations about Iraq risked beginning “a war without end” and that going to war without UN authorisation jeopardised US legitimacy. I concluded by noting that ”raising the right questions, demanding answers and winning allies to our case is not being weak on defence. It’s being smart on defence.”
After my presentation, the chair ruled that there would be no vote and the resolution died without debate or discussion.
Twenty years later, it gives me no satisfaction to say that we were right to oppose that disastrous war. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed; countless others’ lives were shattered by the war’s consequences. While the neoconservatives told Congress that the war would cost $2 billion, the price tag is in the trillions and still growing. Instead of extinguishing extremism, the war fuelled it, metastasising into ever more virulent forms. And America emerged from the war weaker and less respected, while Iran emerged emboldened to project its menacing, meddlesome behaviour into the broader region.
Passing our resolution would not have stopped the Bush administration’s march to war. At least, however, the Democrats would have been on record in opposition, potentially strengthening the resolve of members of Congress to speak out more forcefully and voice their dissent. That is how a democracy is supposed to work. And when it does not, we all pay a steep price.
That is the concerning revelation shared by Daily Star on Wednesday after a Russian broadcast threatened to “obliterate” the UK and permanently submerge the nation underwater.
According to the broadcast, which was uploaded to Twitter via an account called Terror Alarm, Putin’s chief propaganda reporter Dmitry Kiselyov claimed two Russian super-nukes launched from Moscow could “wipe the British Isles off the map.”
“Russia could obliterate the UK with its new hypersonic Satan-2 missile,” Kiselyov said before adding that Russia is poised to “plunge Britain into the depths of the sea using underwater robotic drone Poseidon”.
“It would only take a minute,” Putin allegedly told Johnson when the then-prime minister told the Russian leader that a war against Ukraine would be an “utter catastrophe.”
Russia’s recent threat to nuke the UK also comes shortly after Ukraine’s Western allies agreed to send tanks and other military arms to the invaded nation – something Russia called “extremely dangerous.”
“Red lines are now a thing of the past,” a Kremlin spokesperson cryptically said at the time.
The Admiral Gorshkov, which was scheduled to sail to the Black Sea before abruptly diverting towards the U.S. and Bermuda last week, is reportedly outfitted with nuclear-capable Zircon missiles that move at speeds up to 6,670 MPH and have a maximum range of 625 miles.
Putin’s navy has also reportedly been running missile tests involving the Admiral Gorshkov and the Mach 9 Zircon missiles, with the ship’s commander – Captain Igor Krokhmal – indicating in a recent video the weapons are allegedly working as expected.
“The electronic launch and the work by the shipborne combat team confirmed the missile system’s designed characteristics demonstrated during preliminary and state trials,” Krokhmal said last week.
While the nuclear risk may or may not happen, the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm, writes John Gibbons
Wed, 01 Feb, 2023 – 17:56
Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.
By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation.
Paradoxically, we also live in an age of foolishness and incredulity, that threatens to propel humanity into an endless winter of despair. Last week, a panel of international scientists who maintain the so-called Doomsday Clock, moved its hands ominously forward, to 90 seconds to midnight.
The clock was first established by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, just two years after the devastating killing power of nuclear weapons was first unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For the first time in history, humanity was now a planetary force, capable of triggering a global catastrophe on a par with an asteroid strike. Such god-like power should come with commensurate responsibility, and the Doomsday Clock was set up as a stark visual reminder of the limits of our power.
In the three-quarters of a century since then, the clock has ticked back and forth in synch with the ebb and flow of world events. In 1953, it moved to two minutes to midnight following the test detonation of the devastatingly powerful hydrogen bomb. That had, in the assessment of the scientific panel, been our most dangerous moment — until now.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the principal reason for the unprecedented pessimism in 2023. Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric since then has included repeated thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. This was repeated in recent days by former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who warned darkly that his country’s defeat in Ukraine could lead to a nuclear strike by Russia.
The Russian invasion has also severely damaged international efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. Ukraine handed over its entire Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to the Russian Federation under a 1994 treaty signed in Budapest in which Russia, the US and Britain solemnly agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.
Many in Ukraine and beyond are wondering if the only true deterrent to an aggressive neighbour is to have your own nuclear weapons. Russia’s recklessness extends to what the scientists call its “violation of international protocols and risking of the widespread release of radioactive materials” in its capture of the nuclear reactor sites at Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.
With the heightened risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear incident, “the possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high”, the report warned.
While the nuclear risk remains binary – it may or may not happen – the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm.
The war in Ukraine has occurred at the worst possible moment as it “undermines global efforts to combat climate change…and has led to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking”, the report warned.
As a uniquely global crisis, effective efforts to tackle the climate emergency “require faith in multilateral governance”, which the scientists say has been weakened by the “geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine”.
Having stumbled in the past into dangerous nuclear stand-offs, the hope is that once again sense will prevail and a nuclear disaster will be avoided. However, the climate crisis is an altogether different threat. Here, for a cataclysm to unfold simply requires that the international community fails to act in line with the science.
Division, disinformation, social media-fuelled polarisation and the resurgence of political extremism all undermine our faith in science and reason at the very moment in human history when we need to come together like never before.
ByMichael Callahan, Jennifer Hansler and Haley Britzky, CNNWire
Tuesday, January 31, 2023 1:10PM
Russia has stepped up its offensive attacks in Eastern Ukraine with a missile hitting a residential area.
Russia is violating a key nuclear arms control agreement with the United States and continuing to refuse to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.
“Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspection activities on its territory. Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control,” the spokesperson said in statement.
“Russia has also failed to comply with the New START Treaty obligation to convene a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in accordance with the treaty-mandated timeline,” the spokesperson added.
In December, Putin warned of the “increasing” threat of nuclear war, and this month, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, threatened that Russia losing the war could “provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war.”
“Nuclear powers do not lose major conflicts on which their fate depends,” Medvedev wrote in a Telegram post. “This should be obvious to anyone. Even to a Western politician who has retained at least some trace of intelligence.”
And though a US intelligence assessment in November suggested that Russian military officials discussed under what circumstances Russia would use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the US has not seen any evidence that Putin has decided to take the drastic step of using one, officials told CNN.
Under the New START treaty — the only agreement left regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals — Washington and Moscow are permitted to conduct inspections of each other’s weapons sites, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspections have been halted since 2020.
A session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission on the treaty was slated to meet in Egypt in late November but was abruptly called off. The US has blamed Russia for this postponement, with a State Department spokesperson saying the decision was made “unilaterally” by Russia.
The treaty puts limits on the number of deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons that both the US and Russia can have. It was last extended in early 2021 for five years, meaning the two sides will soon need to begin negotiating on another arms control agreement.
“Russia has a clear path for returning to full compliance. All Russia needs to do is allow inspection activities on its territory, just as it did for years under the New START Treaty, and meet in a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission,” the spokesperson said. “There is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling to the United States and conducting inspections.”
According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Russia has roughly 5,977 nuclear warheads, 1,588 of which are deployed. The US has 5,550 nuclear warheads, according to the Center, including 3,800 active warheads.
On Monday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the last remaining element of the bilateral nuclear arms control treaty with the United States could expire in three years without a replacement.
Asked if Moscow could envisage there being no nuclear arms control agreement between the two nations when the extension of the 2011 New START Treaty comes to an end after 2026, Ryabkov told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Monday: “This is a very possible scenario.”
In brief: While the US has further tightened restrictions on chip-related exports to China recently, there are some entities in the country that have been on an export blacklist for decades. One of these is China’s top nuclear-weapons research institute, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly buying Intel and Nvidia hardware.
The state-run China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP) was one of the first to be placed on a US export blacklist in 1997 because of its work in the field of nuclear weapons, preventing it from purchasing American technology. However, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the institute has obtained US hardware at least a dozen times since 2020, including Intel’s Xeon Gold processors and Nvidia’s GeForce RTX graphics cards, for use in academy computers.
Intel and Nvidia cannot sell their products directly to the CAEP; instead, the institute bought them from Chinese marketplaces such as Taobao, Aliexpress, and other resellers. A WSJ review of CAEP-published research papers found at least 34 over the last decade referenced using American semiconductors in its research. The laboratory studies computational fluid dynamics, a broad scientific field that includes modeling nuclear explosions; physicists at CAEP helped develop the country’s first hydrogen bomb.
Used for high framerates and nuclear-weapons modeling
The revelation illustrates the difficulty in enforcing US export restrictions on China. Nvidia said the millions of PCs sold worldwide means it cannot control where its products end up. Intel said it complies with export regulations and sanctions and so must its distributors and customers.
“It is insanely difficult to enforce the U.S. restrictions when it comes to transactions overseas,” former top Commerce Department official Kevin Wolf told the WSJ.
The Department of Defense said China has been accelerating its nuclear weapons development in recent years. The People’s Liberation Army currently has more than 400 warheads, a figure that could reach about 1,500 by 2035 if the current rate of expansion continues.
With the export restrictions in place, China has been trying to create its own chips, a plan the US is trying to scupper by prohibiting the sale of advanced chipmaking tools to the Asian nation. The Biden administration recently came to an agreement with the Netherlands and Japan that will see the two countries impose their own export controls on chipmaking equipment to China.
Andrey Gurulyov, a State Duma member and former military commander, made the comments during a discussion on a show broadcast on the Kremlin-controlled Russia-1 network.
In a panel moderated by host Vladimir Solovyov, Gurulyov said that Americans “won’t come to their senses” until they “get hit with a nuke on their skull,” according to a translated clip posted on the Russian Media Monitor YouTube channel by journalist Julia Davis.
Gurulyov also said that a Russian strike involving nuclear weapons was the only path forward to ensure lasting peace.
“There is no other way to talk to these fools,” Gurulyov said before adding that people have tried unsuccessfully to convince him otherwise.
“Today, considering our strategic initiative—and right now we have it for sure—along with our current successes, I very much want for us to envision the future,” Gurulyov said. “We should make plans beyond the horizon so that we know what happens in one year, three years, five years and 10 years and harshly move toward it in this paradigm.
Putin no longer leading Ukraine effort, Girkin says: “A complete failure”
“We will win, 100 percent. Where? Everywhere! Everywhere! And this is by far not about Ukraine. Everywhere!”
Gurulyov continued by saying that Russia is a country that brings peace to the world.
“Russia was, is and will be a great nation, capable of bringing peace,” he said. “Peace is the key word! We bring peace and calm!”
The comments from Gurulyov about striking the U.S. are not his only recent talk of nuclear war.
Gurulyov made those remarks while discussing a statement from U.S. President Joe Biden that condemned the idea that Russia could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Gurulyov said his country would not resort to using nukes in Ukraine because Russian people would eventually settle there.
“Biden says there would be a reaction, per their Article 5, but if we turn the British Isles into a Martian desert in three minutes flat, using tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones, they could use Article 5, but for whom?” Gurulyov said. “A nonexistent country, turned into a Martian desert? They won’t respond.”
Newsweek reached out to the White House and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a conversation at Chey Institute in Seoul on January 30, 2023. Photo: AFP NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg started his visit to South Korea and Japan on Sunday, but the “gifts” he brings with him aren’t good. During his trip to South Korea, he mainly discussed issues related to North Korea. He said that the visit demonstrated “the increased importance of the partnership between NATO and the Republic of Korea.” He also mentioned that NATO and South Korea can share information with each other in response to doubts caused by North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. Besides, Stoltenberg further touted about the importance of nuclear deterrence before his trip, claiming if “China, Russia and North Korea have nuclear weapons, but NATO allies do not – that’s a more dangerous world.”
Obviously, Stoltenberg eyed wider. NATO’s existing nuclear sharing mechanism has nothing to do with the security issues on the Korean Peninsula. It has to bring China and Russia along so that its appearance on the Korean Peninsula will not seem that abrupt and will not arouse the South Korea’s vigilance. Stoltenberg cited “nuclear threat” from China, Russia, and North Korea to strengthen information sharing with South Korea. His purpose is very clear, that is, to draw South Korea into the cooperation framework of NATO. Nuclear sharing is just an excuse with which NATO’s grip can be extended to Northeast Asia in an imposing manner.
Although on the highly sensitive issue of nuclear sharing, Stoltenberg reserved some leeway in his public statements, the outside world generally believes that the “information sharing” he proposed will not be the end of NATO’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific. Some analyses from South Korea pointed out that NATO’s move is intended to echo the US and expand its activity area to the “Indo-Pacific” region to contain China. Although NATO claims that its positioning as a regional defensive alliance has not changed, since last year, it has continued to break traditional defense zones and areas and greatly strengthened military and security ties with Asia-Pacific countries such as Japan and South Korea. Now Stoltenberg is standing on the soil of Northeast Asia, talking about “nuclear deterrence” in such a high-profile manner, which highlights the serious threat NATO poses to this region.
The stalemate on the Korean Peninsula and NATO are two remnants of the Cold War in Eurasia, but the former is a victim of the Cold War, while the latter is a beneficiary. After the end of the Cold War, NATO lost the necessity and legitimacy of existence, but it survived by sucking the tense and terrifying atmosphere caused by new crises and conflicts. The reason why NATO has set its sights on the Korean Peninsula is just like hyenas staring at the bleeding wounds of other animals. What it brings to Northeast Asia is the drumbeat of a new cold war.
It is very popular in the US and the West to use the Ukraine crisis as a “security textbook” to sell security fears everywhere, and Stoltenberg’s trip is no exception. However, what happened on the European continent just shows that once there is a security dilemma, even allies will turn against each other, and this knot will become tighter and tighter. In fact, this has a similar underlying logic to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The North and the South used to “arm themselves” out of their respective security concerns, which in turn deepened the other side’s concerns. What has happened on the peninsula in recent years has already proved that hostility and confrontation can never be the messengers of peace. This is crystal clear.
We have noticed that although Stoltenberg always “intentionally or unintentionally” mentioned China when he unilaterally talked about the “threat” from North Korea, the South Korean side seemed to be relatively low-key about it. In Stoltenberg’s meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, as well as with the defense and foreign ministers, the South Korean side avoided talking about China as much as possible. This shows that South Korea’s security concerns so far are still mainly focused on the peninsula issue, but South Koreans need to take more precautions against the calculative NATO. The accelerated extension of NATO from Europe to Northeast Asia will only make the situation on the peninsula more complicated and difficult to resolve, and the result is by no means what South Korea wants to see.
South Korea’s national stability and economic development today are inseparable from the long-term relative peace and stability on the peninsula. The Hankyoreh pointed out soberly in a commentary, “NATO’s nuclear sharing is not about owning or sharing usage rights to nuclear weapons, but a means of sharing the political burden and operational risks.” The “nuclear bait” brought about by NATO is definitely poison rather than a cure for South Korea, which pursues a safe and stable external environment. Today, NATO’s intention to get involved in the Asia-Pacific is well known. How to refuse to “drink poison to quench thirst” will test Seoul’s political wisdom.
A contingent of military officials is quietly pushing the Pentagon to approve sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to help the country defend itself from Russian missile and drone attacks, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
Ukraine has kept American-made F-16s on its weapons wish list since the Russian invasion last year. But Washington and Kyiv have viewed artillery, armor and ground-based air defense systems as more urgent needs as Ukraine seeks to protect civilian infrastructure and claw back ground occupied by Russian forces.
As Ukraine prepares to launch a new offensive to retake territory in the spring, the campaign inside the Defense Department for fighter jets is gaining momentum, according to a DoD official and two other people involved in the discussions. Those people, along with others interviewed for this story, asked not to be named in order to discuss internal matters.
Spurred in part by the rapid approval of tanks and Patriot air defense systems — which not long ago were off-limits for export to Ukraine — there is renewed optimism in Kyiv that U.S. jets could be next up.
Biden announces U.S. will send Abrams tanks to UkraineShare
“I don’t think we are opposed,” said a senior DoD official about the F-16s, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive debate. The person stressed that there has been no final decision.
However, Ukraine has yet to declare that fighter jets are its top priority, the official stressed, noting that the Pentagon is focused on sending Kyiv the capabilities it needs for the immediate fight.
But fighter jets may be moving to the top spot soon. Kyiv has renewed its request for modern fighters in recent days, with a top adviser to the country’s defense minister telling media outlets that officials will push for jets from the U.S. and European countries.
One adviser to the Ukrainian government said the subject has been raised with Washington, but there has been “nothing too serious” on the table yet. Another person familiar with the conversations between Washington and Kyiv said it could take “weeks” for the U.S. to make a decision on shipments of its own jets and approve the re-export of the F-16s from other countries.
“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense. … It’s not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want,” Yuriy Sak, who advises Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told Reuters.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but pointed to remarks by deputy national security adviser Jon Finer. He said the U.S. would be discussing fighter jets “very carefully” with Kyiv and its allies.
“We have not ruled in or out any specific systems,” Finer said on MSNBC Thursday.
“We have nothing to announce regarding F-16s,” said a DOD spokesperson. “As always, we’ll continue to consult closely with the Ukrainians and our international Allies and partners on Ukraine’s security assistance needs to enable them to defend their country.”
Ukraine wants modern fighters — U.S. Air Force F-16s or F-15s, or their European equivalents the German Tornado or Swedish Gripen — to replace its fleet of Soviet-era jets. Dozens of the more modern planes will become available over the next year as countries such as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands upgrade to U.S. F-35 fighters.
Despite the age of Ukraine’s jets, Kyiv’s integrated air defenses have kept Russia from dominating its skies since the Feb. 24 invasion.
But now, officials are concerned that Ukraine is running out of missiles to protect its skies. Once its arsenal is depleted, Russia’s advanced fighter jets will be able to move in and Kyiv “will not be able to compete,” said the DoD official involved in the discussions.
Modern fighter jets could be one solution to this problem, argues a group of military officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere. F-16s carry air-to-air missiles that can shoot down incoming missiles and drones. And unlike the Patriots and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems the West is currently sending, fighter jets can move around an area quickly to protect different targets.
“If they get [F-16] Vipers and they have an active air-to-air missile with the radar the F-16 currently has with some electronic protection, now it’s an even game,” the DoD official said.
Even if the U.S. decided not to send the Air Force’s F-16s, other Western nations have American-made fighters they could supply. For example, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the Dutch parliament last week that his Cabinet would look at supplying F-16s, if Kyiv requests them. But the U.S. must approve the transfer.
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledge that Ukraine needs new aircraft for the long term. But for now, some argue that Ukraine has a greater need for more traditional air defenses, such as the Patriots and NASAMs that the U.S. and other countries are supplying, because jets may take months to arrive.
Sending Ukraine F-16s “does not solve the cruise missile or drone problem right now,” the senior DoD official said.
Big push for training
Others say the need for fighter jets is more urgent. Ukraine has identified a list of up to 50 pilots who are ready now to start training on the F-16, according to a DoD official and a Ukrainian official, as well as three other people familiar with the discussions. These seasoned pilots speak English and have thousands of combat missions under their belts, and could be trained in as little as three months, the people said.
Many of them have already trained with the U.S. military in major exercises before the invasion. In 2011 and 2018, Americans and Ukrainians participated in military drills in the skies over Ukraine. In 2011, the Americans brought over their F-16s and taught the Ukrainian pilots, in their MiG-29s and Su-27s, how to protect a stadium in preparation for the 2012 Euro Cup.
After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the U.S. and Ukraine held a second joint 2018 exercise aimed at teaching Ukrainian pilots homeland defense tactics and controlling the skies. The American pilots used their F-15s to replicate Russian fighter tactics.
Ukraine is pushing the U.S. to start training its fighter pilots on the F-16s now, before President Joe Biden approves supplying the jets, according to the Ukrainian official and one of the people familiar. But there is no appetite in the Pentagon for this proposal, U.S. officials said. One alternative under discussion at lower levels is to start training Ukrainian pilots on introductory fighter tactics in trainer jets.
Ukraine has also considered contracting with private companies in the U.S. to begin training pilots, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
It’s likely U.S. military training would not start without a presidential decision to supply American fighters. One concern for the Biden administration all along is that sending advanced weapons could be seen by Russia as an escalation, prompting Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons.
But officials point out that the F-16 was first built in the 1980s, and the Air Force is already retiring parts of the fleet. While sending Ukraine the stealthy American F-22s or F-35s would be considered escalatory, sending F-16s would not, they said.
“Let’s face it, a nuclear war isn’t going to happen over F-16s,” the DoD official said.
One European official agreed, saying F-16s “cannot be considered escalatory.”
“It’s simply part of the toolkit of having conventional weapons,” the person said.
Yet F-16s are complex systems that also require massive infrastructure and highly skilled technicians to operate and maintain. Training Ukrainian maintainers would likely take longer than training the pilots, and the U.S. may need to bring in contractors to do some of that instruction.
Providing F-16s is likely to win some support on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans alike have chided the administration for not moving quickly enough or for withholding certain capabilities, such as longer-range artillery. Sending Russian-made MiG fighters to Ukraine, via Eastern European countries that still fly them, won bipartisan support, though a weapons swap ultimately never came to fruition.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who co-chairs the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, said he’s “not against” providing F-16s to Kyiv, but broadly favors providing Ukraine with “whatever works.”
“You can’t half-ass a war. Putin’s not. You’ve got to meet Putin armor for armor, weapon for weapon, because there’s already an extraordinary disadvantage in number of troops,” Quigley said. “Whatever works, whatever they need, send to them.
“My message when I first started talking about this is what were once vices are now habits,” he said. “Everything we ever proposed was seen as escalatory.”
But the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), cast doubt on the need to send F-16s into the conflict, where fighters haven’t proved pivotal.
“I’m not opposed to it,” Smith said. “It’s just not at the top of the list of anybody’s priorities who’s focused on what [weapons] the fight really needs right now.”
He noted that F-16s, much like older MiG jets debated last year, would be vulnerable to Russian air defenses and fifth-generation fighters. Instead, Smith underscored the need to supply ammunition for air defense batteries, longer-range missiles, tanks and armored vehicles.
“What we really need to be focused on is air defense, number one,” he said. “And number two, artillery.”