May 22, 2023

U.S. agrees to send Ukraine F-16 jets.

Photo by Guy Croisiaux / Unsplash
Photo by Guy Croisiaux / Unsplash

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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

Ukraine gets its F-16 fighter jets. Plus, tickets are officially on sale for our Tangle live event, and a reader asks about language we used to describe how common arguments are.

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Quick hits.

  1. Russia has claimed the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, though Ukraine's president denied they have succeeded in capturing it. (The claims)
  2. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) is expected to announce his run for president today, and has won the endorsement of Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the Senate's No. 2 Republican. (The announcement)
  3. The Supreme Court declined to reinterpret Section 230, a victory for Google and tech companies who were being sued for liability in two cases related to terrorism. (The ruling)
  4. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) filed articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden and others in his administration, alleging neglect of migrant flows at the border. (The articles)
  5. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) suffered more serious complications from her bout with shingles than previously disclosed. (The report)

Today's topic.

F-16s for Ukraine. The United States and its allies are planning to provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine as part of a long-term effort to strengthen its military. The decision was announced by the Biden administration on Friday at the G-7 Summit, and comes after months of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleading with the U.S. and other allies to provide the jets. Until now, Biden had refused the requests.

The U.S. and its allies “will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” one official told NBC News. While those details are still unknown, a senior official did say the U.S. would support joint allied training programs for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko responded to the news on Saturday, saying Western countries run "colossal risks" if they decide to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Air Force Spokesman Colonel Yuri Ignat said Ukraine would "win this war" once it deploys F-16 fighters, as it would allow them to provide defensive cover in areas that have been out of range of anti-aircraft missiles.

Delivering the jets, and training Ukrainian pilots to fly them, has been a major point of contention among U.S. officials and NATO allies who worry about whether it would amount to an escalation in the war, and to what degree training Ukrainian soldiers would put Americans or Europe at greater risk.

Officials in Poland, France, and England have all expressed openness to providing Ukraine with advanced fighter jets in the past, but any plans to share the American-made planes requires the permission of the U.S. government.

Today, we're going to take a look at some arguments about the F-16s from the right and left, then my take. You can find our previous coverage of the war in Ukraine here.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is somewhat split on the decision, though most criticize Biden for taking too long.
  • Critics argue that Ukraine could have the jets operating by now if Biden had agreed to the plan when Ukraine wanted.
  • Others suggest the jets will not make as big of a difference as pundits believe.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said "the obvious question is why this decision took 15 months."

"In February Mr. Biden insisted that Ukraine didn’t need Western jets. Apparently three months later the jets would be helpful. That’s been the White House pattern throughout the Ukraine conflict: Resist more advanced weapons, then finally provide them much later after more carnage," the board said. "The British have been ahead of the U.S. in offering long-range missiles and pilot training. Leaks to the media suggest that the F-16 training that was heretofore impossible may happen in Poland. U.S. allies are flush with F-16s as the newer F-35 comes online, so delivering them to Ukraine shouldn’t degrade NATO’s defenses."

This will also help the U.S. learn more about Russia's air defenses and provide tremendous lessons about the capability of Putin's army. "U.S. officials say it’ll take 'months' to train pilots, and we’ll never know what the war might look like today if Mr. Biden had offered such powerful assets a year ago," the board said. "But the President can still decide to help the Ukrainians mount the best possible offensive: Train the pilots fast, cut red tape in transferring jets, and help Kyiv push the Russians back to Russia."

In National Review, Jim Geraghty criticized Biden for refusing up until now.

"The Ukrainian Air Force requested F-15s and/or F-16s back in March 2022. If we had started training the Ukrainian pilots back then, and supplied Ukraine with the jets once their pilots were ready, the Ukrainian skies would be full of F-16s winning air superiority by now," Geraghty said. Given the war is likely to be going on six months from now, we can decide whether we want it to feature Ukrainian pilots in U.S.-made F-16s or not.

"Back in February, Biden insisted in an awkward interview — does he have any other kind? — that Zelensky and the Ukrainian military didn’t need F-16s, even though they have been begging for them for a year," Geraghty wrote. Ukrainians pilots "are flying the equivalent of a minivan" and Biden has been insisting "they don't need the keys to the sports car."

In Responsible Statecraft, Daniel L. Davis said the jets "won't fundamentally alter" the war.

Even if it only takes four months to train Ukrainian pilots, "the process to identify F-16s from partner countries, get them airworthy, and then deliver them with the full contingent of maintenance supplies, spare parts, and ammunition, will likely take into 2024." That means there is "little likelihood" F-16s see the skies this year. These jets are also meant to be "one component in an integrated command and control battle management of sensors."

"While the jet is capable of operating on its own, it is far less capable without additional acquisition assets, such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS," and there has been no discussion of providing this to Ukraine. Third, the F-16 is "not a stealth aircraft," which means it "is vulnerable to Russian air defenses." Ukraine's air force has played a minimal role because of these defenses, and while "the F-16 is more capable than the MiG-29s the Ukrainians have been using, it is still vulnerable to attack by Russia’s air defenses."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left support the decision, saying providing the jets is worth the risks.
  • Supporters argue that the F-16s would help now, and are a good long term strategy to shore up Ukraine's defenses.
  • Others on the left criticize Biden for continuing to cross his own red lines, and worry it could escalate the war.

In Bloomberg, James Stavridis said providing the jets "is worth the risk."

The risks are clear: Russia will "see it as direct American intervention," and thus "there is a chance of escalation," which could lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction. However, Putin is "highly unlikely" to exercise such an option because of "strident opposition from China, his main supporter, as well as India and the Global South." There is also a risk that the "complexity of training and maintaining the jets causes the Ukrainians to waste valuable combat resources and personnel to produce a less-than-robust new capability."

On the other hand, the "F-16s are rugged, [and] relatively simple to maintain and operate," Starvridis said. They are "the Swiss Army knife of the air battlefield," with "tremendous range and maneuverability." It can "operate virtually every missile and bomb in the allied inventory." Putin's generals are pushing for him to take out entire cities and critical infrastructure, and "the F-16s could deploy at two or three bases around Ukraine… on five-minute alert status (standard practice with fighters on the deck of a US aircraft carrier) and [be] directed against incoming flights of Russian aircraft in air-to-air combat mode."

At the end of February, The Washington Post editorial board was pushing Biden to send Western fighter jets to Ukraine.

The U.S. response "has lacked long-term thinking in a war that will not end soon," the board said. "A prime example is Washington’s resistance to preparing Ukraine’s air force to fly advanced U.S. fighter jets, a component of defense strategy it will surely need. Supplying Kyiv with U.S.-made F-16s, top-notch fighter jets used for decades by military pilots in this country as well as a number of NATO nations, would take time — well over a year given the intensive training needed not only for aviators but also for mechanics and other logistical personnel. It is time to start."

Without U.S. support, nothing is likely to happen. "That's been the pattern since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion" and is exactly what happened with the top-of-the-line battle tanks. "It was only Mr. Biden’s decision in January to supply U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks that ended foot-dragging by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz." The West "has to think in terms of years," and "dithering over weapons for Ukraine is likely to translate into stalemate, which serves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests."

In World Socialist Web Site, Andre Damon said this announcement is the latest proof the war is "spinning out of control."

"To an even greater degree than the M1 Abrams battle tank, sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine would involve the deployment of logistical infrastructure and supply lines into Ukraine from the NATO countries, likely including the deployment of American civilian contractors to help maintain these sophisticated systems," Damon wrote. The recent decision is in flagrant defiance of "multiple explicit promises made by the Biden administration" that it is seeking to avoid an escalation of a "full-scale war with nuclear-armed Russia."

Now, the U.S. has "crossed the last of these self-proclaimed red lines," despite the fact an expanded involvement of our role in the war is supported by just one in five Americans. "It is for this reason that the Biden administration has systematically lied about its plans to escalate the war and sought to cloak its long-planned escalatory measures as improvised responses to public 'pressure' from its NATO allies and members of Congress," Damon wrote.

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • Many of the right's arguments on this issue from a year ago have panned out: We could have done it then, and probably should have.
  • Today, the risks of delivering F-16s seem relatively low, given how much Russia seems to bluff on any red lines.
  • That being said, this is a long-term move, not one that will change this war imminently.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need to stop holding Ukraine to ridiculous standards.

In that context, I'd like to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with Ukraine's president pressuring NATO allies to provide Ukraine with F-16s. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with the U.S. and its allies thinking about how to provide them in the most efficient way possible. The best criticism of our decision-making process is the one largely lobbed by the right — if we were going to do this, why didn't we do it a year ago?

One good answer to that question is that the risks seem much, much lower now.

Russia has threatened "escalation" and promised doom and gloom over and over, wailing any U.S. involvement will cross some perceived red line on military support. Remember when the M1A1 tanks were an "extremely dangerous decision" that would take the conflict to a new level of confrontation? Remember when the HIMARs rocket launchers risked widening the conflict? Remember when Russia said providing Patriot Air Defense systems would "entail possible consequences" and effectively make the U.S. a part of the war?

Each one of these warnings was interpreted by some as threats of retaliation against U.S. shipments, or even threats of nuclear war, and each got people in the U.S. insisting we must not escalate. Then, each warning resulted in essentially no new escalations or consequences from Russia. As I've written before, the threats Russia makes should be taken about as seriously as their state media. What we need to be watching for are escalatory actions — the movements of their military or nuclear programs.

So, any criticism of this move has to consider the relative risks. Maybe a year ago we wouldn't have considered sending fighter jets to Ukraine because we didn't know the risk. But now, we can be confident that the risk is very low. Russia hasn’t managed to win its war against an overpowered Ukraine. The last thing it can afford is to involve another party, and it's hard to believe it has the power or resources to make good on its threats of revenge against this kind of support.

The more interesting and pertinent question is just how much the F-16s will help. I have zero military experience, so I'm not going to sit here and pretend I know the answer. The experts seem divided on their potential impact, but it appears the jets aren't going to immediately swing the war one way or the other. They won’t be in the sky for months.

A better way to interpret this is probably that the U.S. is investing in long-term help, and preparing Ukraine for a stage of the war that is a year away and beyond. Acknowledging that prospect is both depressing and sensible. The F-16 fighter jets may not win Ukraine the war this summer, but they offer another advanced measure of protection for an army in desperate need of whatever edge it can get.

In that sense, given that they are a relatively abundant resource for us and our NATO allies, I think committing to the delivery makes sense. In fact, I wrote last March — over a year ago — that we should have supported the delivery of less-advanced Polish fighter jets to Ukraine. At that time, it was mostly conservative columnists who believed those planes (and the F-16s) should have been sent, and mostly liberal columnists backing Biden's refusal. Looking back, I think it's clear the narrative on the right has prevailed — Biden should have acted sooner, and Putin's threats were mostly bluster.

Today, there seems to be little downside, aside from the financial cost. Even if the ceiling on how much the jets can help is low, Ukrainian officials clearly believe they would be game-changing. Given my belief that there are so few risks on the table, I think it is the right move — even if hindsight tells us the delay was ultimately unnecessary.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Hey Isaac, great newsletter. Always look forward to reading at noon each day. Quick question regarding “What the Left/Right is Saying.” What is the significance (if any) of the many/other/some language at the top of those sections? For example, will you only use "many" if you find at least X sources saying it?

— Ben from Richmond, Virginia

Tangle: That's a great question, one I have not gotten before. I'll be frank that I don't have a particularly well defined science to it, so maybe I need to be more careful with the language I use there. Still, my hope is to try to indicate the prevalence or ubiquitousness of certain arguments, and the countervailing nature of others.

Today's newsletter is instructive: You can find a lot of arguments on the right supporting Biden's decision, knocking it for being too late, or criticizing it as escalatory. While the plan seems to have establishment backing (there is little pushback in Congress or traditionally conservative media outlets), the rightward reaction is basically a big mishmash, so we describe it as "split."

Meanwhile, on the left, I struggled to find many pieces criticizing the choice. In many pieces we didn't cite, like those in The Atlantic or The Los Angeles Times, there are just more arguments fleshing out the risks but ultimately landing on "yes, we should still send them." However, there were a few pockets of dissent, especially in far-left venues, hence us reaching to the World Socialist Website to support that "others" on the left criticized the move.

Our goal is to try to show variance in opinion not just between the left and right, but within the left and right. But I also want to give you an idea of how common these arguments seem in the punditry class, which is where we try to insert signals like "most" or "some" or "others."

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

On Friday, heavily redacted court documents were unsealed that showed the FBI improperly used a digital surveillance tool more than 278,000 times to search for information on individuals. The documents showed thousands of violations of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to spy on communications between targeted foreign individuals. FBI officials used the warrantless surveillance tool to look into people connected to racial justice protests in 2020 and the January 6 storming of the Capitol, among others. Section 702 is set to expire at the end of 2023, and the report could create challenges for Congress's effort to renew it. The FBI says that reforms it has already put into place in 2021 would address abuse of the program. The Hill has the story.


  • 2,200. The estimated number of active F-16 fighter jets in the world right now.
  • 200. The number of F-16 fighter jets Ukraine says it needs.
  • 120. The number of combat-capable aircraft Ukraine had at the beginning of the war.
  • 16. The hours of maintenance an F-16 fighter jet needs per hour of flying time.
  • $11 billion. The estimated cost of revitalizing Ukraine's military with F-16 fighter jets, according to the Pentagon's top policy official.

The extras.

  • One year ago, we had just broken down America's third parties.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the George Santos expulsion vote.
  • Mixed bag: 39.2% of Tangle readers said they'd primarily blame Republicans if the U.S. defaulted on its debt. 37.3% of Tangle readers said they would primarily blame everyone in roughly equal measure, while 15% said they'd primarily blame Democrats and President Biden.
  • Don't forget to buy tickets for our event!
  • Nothing to do with politics: Jim Brown, arguably the greatest football (and lacrosse) player who ever lived, has died. Here are his highlights.
  • Take the poll: Do you support sending F-16s to Ukraine? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

Boston is piloting a new program to offer free digital libraries at bus stops across the city. Riders at 20 bus stops can now scan a QR code to browse and borrow audiobooks, eBooks, e-newspapers and e-magazines appropriate for all ages, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced. Library cards are not needed and readers don't even need to download an app. The pilot program is going to run through August, and is intended to give people something to do on public transportation while also offering more free resources for reading, learning, and keeping up with the news. Patrons can check out up to five titles at a time for two weeks without any cost. NBC Boston has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.