Norway claims it’s ready to finally help train Ukrainian pilots on how to fly F16s, after the US approved donations of fighter jets it has produced to Ukraine. Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram, however, was still reluctant to turn over any of Norway’s old F16s to Ukraine, even after Denmark and the Netherlands did so during the weekend.
“We will examine possibilities for donating F16 fighter jets (at least for training purposes),” Gram told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. He said Norway will contribute towards training Ukrainian pilots, using some of its remaining F16s that officially were retired in 2022 and replaced with new F35 fighter jets.
Norway bought 52 new F35A fighter jets produced by US-based Lockheed Martin, in one of its biggest defense investments ever. The first F35 landed in Norway in 2017, with the entire fleet is expected to be fully operative by 2025.
Norway earlier had a fleet of 60 F16A (one-seater) jets and 14 F16B (two-seaters). The first F16 was delivered in 1980 and the fleet served Norway and NATO allied operations for 42 years, seeing lots of active duty over Libya in 2011 and in Afghanistan. The Libyan operation, carried out when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was still Norway’s prime minister, later attracted widespread criticism. Stoltenberg defended it but his successors admitted to letting Libya down.
Now most of the F16s have since been taken out of service or sold abroad, with sale contracts for 32 of them to Romania and another 12 to US-based training group Draken International, according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Around a dozen are believed to remain uncommitted in storage. Some of those may be able to be made available to Ukraine, which has eagerly sought fighter jets since Russia invaded in February of last year.
Norway’s own defense department describes the F16s as “a compact, multi-role fighter jet” that’s “extremely maneuverable.” They were the world’s most attractive fighter jet when first launched in the late 1970s and remained operative in Norway until just last year, thanks to what defense officials call “frequent updating and thorough maintenance.”
Ukraine has been constantly asking for F16s to help fend off Russian forces. Gram said last spring that Norway would support training of Ukrainian pilots, with a goal that Ukraine would be given its own F16s. He told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), however, that “many countries have F16s” and the Norwegian government hadn’t decided on whether Norway would turn over some its remaining F16s.
During the weekend both the Netherlands and Denmark did just that, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen even posing in the cockpit of a Danish F16. Zelensky wants the fighter jets to be able to attack Russian occupation forces in its eastern areas and better protect Ukrainian ground forces, tanks and other armoured vehicles against Russian helicopters.
The actual number of fighter jets to be handed over to Ukraine remains unclear, but news bureau NTB reported that the Netherlands has 42 available. Training is expected to take place in Denmark and Romania, possibly with some of Norway’s old F16s, but many of the Ukrainian pilots first need to get a grasp on technical terms in English to be able to communicate with their instructors from NATO countries. Then comes actual flight training, leading to reports that F16s won’t be operative in Ukraine for at least another six months.
It was a productive weekend for Zelensky, meanwhile, who first had visited Sweden to sign an agreement with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on prodution of Swedish CV90 armoured vehicles in Ukraine. Then it was on to a meeting in the Netherlands with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte before heading on to Denmark for the meeting with Fredriksen. Danish Foreign Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen said he was “proud that Denmark and the Netherlands would donate F16s to Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia and Russia’s meaningless aggression.”
Norway’s defense minister Gram told NRK that Norway also wants “to contribute towards Ukraine’s ability to build up modern fighter jet capacity. That’s important and necessary.” Norway will help with actual training, while donation of F16s “is a question that demands thorough evaluations that we will make in tight dialogue with our allies. We will get back to a final decision on that.” Norway has, in the meantime, donated Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) that also have helped Ukraine defend itself.
Some defense experts have criticized Norway and other NATO countries for taking too long to respond to Ukraine’s need for the fighter jets. There have, however, been concerns that donations of F16s would contribute to an escalation of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Others claim the fighter jets are necessary for Ukraine to defend itself and help end the war.
“We must try to make sure Russia loses this war,” former Norwegian defense chief Sverre Diesen wrote in a commentary in DN earlier this year. The Ukrainians, he added, “must be put in a position to win, as quickly as possible. Anything else will only lead to an unnecessary extension of the war,” with “more death and destruction.”
Diesen, now attached to the defense department’s research institute, noted how Poland and Slovakia have already agreed to supply Ukraine with Russian-produced fighter jets. Other NATO countries must act in kind, he wrote, not least on the premise that Russian President Vladimir Putin already has “overplayed his hand” and has nothing to respond with that Western nations can’t triumph over.
NATO allies have already promised more weapons and other military aid to Ukraine, with Norway sending more drones, NASAM equipment, other military equipment and field rations including 130,000 meals produced by Drytech in Tromsø.