WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman has raised doubts about transferring U.S. aircraft to Ukraine during an interview at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., did not endorse an amendment in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would authorize $100 million to begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly U.S. fighter jets, raising doubts that the provision would survive negotiations with the Senate when Congress formulates the final legislation.
“It’s a question we have to seriously debate with the House,” Reed said. “We would get the best advice from the Department of Defense about [whether this is] the most effective weapons system, or one of the most effective weapons systems, that they could use.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked since March for American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said in July that Ukraine would eventually need to wean its military off Soviet-era aircraft and transfer to more modern systems compatible with the U.S. and its NATO allies.
During his panel earlier at the Defense News Conference, Kendall cautioned that those comments from July, in which he did not shut the door to providing older airframes to Ukraine, were not meant to signal the Air Force plans to transfer aircraft to the embattled country.
“There is not an active effort, at this point in time, to give them aircraft to replace their MiGs, for example,” Kendall said. “We’re not looking at that right now. That’s not what they’re concerned about.”
In the near term, he said, the U.S. is focused on providing Ukraine with immediate needs to fight off Russia’s invasion. The war has largely settled into an artillery-driven conflict and a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kendall expects this to continue for the next few months, until winter weather sets in, making it more difficult to fight.
But he dismissed talk of the possibility of providing A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft to Ukraine, which the Air Force has long wanted to retire. While the A-10 has “some very attractive capabilities,” Kendall said, they are aging and have limitations.
“It would be pure speculation to talk about at this point what the Ukrainians might decide they need for the future and whether we can make it available,” Kendall said. But eventually, he added, Ukraine is going to have to decide what it wants its future air force to look like.
The Biden administration has also remained wary of allowing sensitive U.S. technology to fall into Russian hands on the battlefield. And the White House has expressed concern about Moscow’s response should Ukrainian forces use high-end American equipment to attack Russian territory.
“This raises the obvious question of containing the fight within the confines of the current situation with aviation,” Reed said after his keynote address at the conference.
Still, he touted Ukraine’s use of current U.S. equipment such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to strike behind Russian lines without U.S. aircraft.
“What we’ve seen so far is the extraordinary capability and courage of Ukrainians, together with sophisticated weaponry like HIMARS … to really negate Russia’s supposed advantages,” Reed said. “In fact right now, the Ukrainians are conducting an offensive. They seem to have developed an ability to strike behind Russian lines, an ability to strike Russian command and control.”
The House passed its defense authorization — with the provision to train Ukrainian pilots — by a 329-101 vote in July. The Senate has yet to pass its bill, but Reed said he’s pushing for a vote on the upper chamber’s version of the legislation sometime this month.
“I’m personally engaged with [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,] to try to get it before we reach the election,” Reed said. “I’d like to say it’s a certainty, but I can say that there are other issues we have to pursue. We have to have a continuing resolution, obviously, to keep the government operating.”
The Senate defense authorization also allocates $2.7 billion to shore up munitions production, in part to backfill U.S. stockpiles of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Reed hopes this additional funding will help address ongoing supply chain shortages and workforce issues that have hampered the defense-industrial bases’ ability to produce multiple weapons systems.
He noted that this funding was modeled on previous efforts in prior defense authorizations to shore up the submarine-industrial base.
“We authorized funding of $50 million a year, specifically designed to help the submarine-industrial base, identifying problems in suppliers to increase production,” Reed said. “And also one of those areas was cybersecurity complications — difficult problems. I think we’re going to have to play to that model.”
Reed also said he hopes the final defense authorization bill reauthorizes the Small Business Administration’s innovation research and technology transfer awards, on which the Pentagon heavily depends to bolster innovation in the defense-industrial base.
The reauthorization has remained stalled in the Senate amid negotiations with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the top Republican on the Small Business Committee, who has questioned the efficacy of the program and raised concerns over ties between Small Business Innovation Research program awardees and China. Reed would like to see the SBIR reauthorization included in the final defense authorization bill.
“We have to get it done because it would put this whole business in a terrible position just at the time we’re trying to create more innovation, create a stronger industrial base,” Reed said. “We’re taking one of the best tools and putting it on the sidelines for no good reason at all.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.