The US has said it will support plans to provide US-made F-16s to Ukraine and also back training Ukrainian pilots to fly them, in a significant move ahead of a much anticipated counter-offensive against Russia.
A senior White House official said President Biden had told G7 leaders in Japan of the decision which will also include the provision of training for other advanced aircraft.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has lobbied for fighter jets for months including on visits to the UK, said the decision would “greatly enhance our army in the sky... I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima.”
The UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark also welcomed the move which some military analysts have dubbed “game changing” as Ukraine seeks to ensure Russia has no air superiority.
US approval for the scheme will allow other nations to export their F-16s. This is because the US legally has to approve the re-export of equipment purchased by allies.
The US official said the country would “support a joint effort with our allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including F-16s, to further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian Air Force”.
He added: “As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them.”
The move by the US will be viewed as a major breakthrough for the air capabilities of Ukraine, which has repeatedly lobbied its Western allies to provide jets to help in its fight against Russia.
Mr Zelensky welcomed what he described as a “historic decision”, adding that he looked forward to “discussing the practical implementation” of the plan at the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
It is not expected that pilots will train in the US but the blessing of President Biden unlocks the possibilty of European countries with the US made F-16s handing them over for Ukraine’s war effort. They require the assent of the US to re-export military hardware.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also backed the move, tweeting: “The UK will work together with the USA and the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark to get Ukraine the combat air capability it needs.”
Denmark has announced it too will now be able to support the training of pilots, but did not confirm whether it would send any jets to Ukraine. Denmark’s air force has 40 F-16s, around 30 of which are operational.
The US had repeatedly rejected Ukraine’s pleas for the jets, instead focusing on providing military support in other areas.
The Ukrainian leader is expected to travel to Japan to meet G7 leaders, with his office confirming on Friday that he was due to meet Mr Biden in Japan in the coming days.
Training on the US-made jets will take place in Europe and will require months to complete.
The US hopes to begin the training, which will be conducted on fourth-generation fighters including F-16s, in the coming weeks.
Ukraine is seeking the jets, made by Lockheed Martin , as it presses on with its biggest advance for months against invading Russian troops before a planned counter-offensive.
Ukraine, which does not possess any Western-designed jets, says the F-16s are far more effective than the Soviet-era fighters it still uses. Poland and Slovakia have handed over 27 MiG-29s to Ukraine. First built in the 1970s, F-16s can travel at twice the speed of sound and can engage targets in the air or on the ground.
Western governments have been wary of leaving their own countries undefended by giving away too much equipment.
Some Nato member countries have also expressed their worries that handing jets to Ukraine would be viewed as escalating the war, risking a direct confrontation with Russia.
Ukraine’s President received pledges earlier this week from Britain and the Netherlands to help build a “jets coalition”, although leaders from both countries stopped short of saying they will send planes. The UK does not use F-16s.