Lockheed ready with F-16s as Kyiv allies revive debate over fighter jets

Lockheed Martin has said it stands ready to meet demand for its F-16 aircraft as some of Ukraine’s closest European allies revive efforts to supply fighter jets to Kiev.

The US-German decision to send tanks to Ukraine has reignited discussions, which European defense officials warned were in their early stages.

Frank St. John, chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor, told the FT there were “many talks about third-party transfers of F-16s” — with countries re-exporting their U.S. jets to Ukraine to to defend its airspace. Lockheed is not directly involved in talks about the possible delivery of military aircraft to Kiev.

However, St. John said the company would “step up production of F-16s in Greenville, South Carolina, to get to the place where we will be able to help all countries that choose to make third party transfers to, reasonably well suited to the current conflict”.

The White House has rejected Ukrainian calls for modern fighter jets like the F-16 for fear they could be used to attack Russian territory. The US government must approve the sale or transfer of US fighter jets to third countries, which means that European countries need political support from the Biden administration.

“Together with our international allies and partners, we communicate regularly with the Ukrainians regarding their needs and requests,” said a US defense official. “At the moment we have nothing to report on F-16s.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has ruled out sending planes to Ukraine. “I made it clear very early on that we were not going to send fighter jets and I’ll say that again here,” he said on Wednesday. Germany does not fly F-16 jets.

EU member states exporting F-16s directly to Ukraine is one of a series of options, European officials said, pointing out that the US-made jets could also be sent by Western states to former Warsaw Pact countries, which would then use their Soviet Union-designed aircraft can send to Kiev.

At the start of the war, Warsaw offered to send its Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force, repeating the proposal with the US sending F-16s to supplement the Polish Air Force. The initiative was dropped in March after Washington deemed it too escalating.

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said last week that the Netherlands would consider requests to send F-16s “with an open mind” and that there were “no taboos” against military support. The Netherlands has about 40 F-16s and is phasing them out by purchasing more advanced F-35s.

In addition to the Netherlands, seven other European NATO countries fly F-16s, including Poland, Norway and Romania.

Several of Lockheed’s weapon systems have played key roles on the Ukrainian battlefield, including the highly mobile artillery missile system (Himars), the guided multiple launch missile system (Gmlrs), Javelin missiles, and the more recently delivered Patriot missile defense system, including its companion PAC-3 rockets. The company has invested in their production ahead of contracts to replenish supplies from the US government that it knows will come.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington.

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