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Ukraine’s first F-16s will see combat this summer, officials say

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The first American-made F-16 fighter jets committed to Ukraine are being transferred and are expected to take to the skies this summer, U.S. and European officials announced Wednesday, saying the advanced warplanes soon will provide another tool for Kyiv’s beleaguered defense in the face of relentless Russian attacks.

An unspecified number of aircraft are en route from the Netherlands and Denmark, the nations’ leaders said in a joint statement with President Biden. The statement noted that the governments of Belgium and Norway have committed to donate others.

Ukraine is expected to field 60 F-16s eventually, officials have said, with a host of nations banding together to provide pilot training, weapons and logistical support.

Wednesday’s announcement coincides with this week’s NATO leaders summit in Washington, a gathering that has focused extensively on sustaining support for Ukraine and on questions about the alliance’s future that have begun to take hold ahead of this year’s U.S. presidential election.

A separate statement circulated by the White House on behalf of Washington and Berlin said that, in 2026, the Pentagon would begin rotating powerful missile systems through Germany. These “episodic deployments” are to include some hypersonic weapons that officials characterized as having “significantly longer range” than any hardware currently in Europe.

Taken together, the two announcements seemed designed in part to capture Russia’s attention. Anatoly Antonov, Moscow’s ambassador in Washington, decried Western support for Ukraine, saying the NATO summit “reaffirmed the aggressive nature of the alliance.”

The Biden administration had resisted providing F-16s to Ukraine before relenting last year. Kyiv said it desperately needs the aircraft to combat Russia’s use of glide bombs, one of the most pernicious weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, which have devastated Ukrainian forces along the front line. The Soviet-era weapons are nearly impossible to intercept once launched, Ukrainian officials have said, suggesting the F-16 would enable its forces to shoot down the planes that carry the bombs or push them farther away from Ukrainian territory.

The commitment of F-16s to Ukraine is part of a broader effort to shore up the country’s air defenses, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told The Washington Post in an interview. The need was underscored again this week by attacks that killed at least 37 people and that included a strike on a children’s hospital in Kyiv.

“If you don’t have air control, you’re extremely vulnerable. And you have seen in recent weeks or months it is starting to change now the vulnerability of Ukraine of not having planes and not having sufficient air defense,” Store said. “When you see the brutality of the recent round of attacks from Russia … that is badly needed.”

The announcement comes after a relatively small group of Ukrainian pilots completed training with U.S. advisers at Morris Air National Guard Base in Arizona in May and moved on to additional instruction in Europe.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week that more than a dozen Ukrainian pilots are training in Denmark and the United States, with instruction tailored depending on their individual skills with both aviation and the English language. Ukrainian officials have complained that the pace has given Russia ample time to target civilian infrastructure unopposed.

Dan Lamothe and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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