Unity in supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion remains the touchstone of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said today at the conclusion of the 12th meeting of the group.
The virtual meeting brought together defense leaders from 50 countries that continue to rush security assistance to Ukraine. Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the media following the meeting.
The military training and security assistance the contact group has delivered, coupled with the incredible bravery and resourcefulness of the Ukrainian people, has been decisive, so far, both men said.
The group of nations has delivered air defense systems, armored vehicles and large quantities of ammunition. Contact group members have also trained thousands of Ukrainian service members in these new capabilities. "Today, we committed to doing even more to support Ukraine's fight for freedom," Austin said. "I came away from today's meeting as confident as ever in the contact group's resolve and sustained unity."
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov briefed the contact group members on the situation in Ukraine and about the follow-on requirements that Ukraine's defenders will need in the weeks and months ahead. The group also discussed critical capability gaps that Ukraine is faces, the secretary said. Many countries stepped up to close those gaps.
"One of Ukraine's most urgent requirements is ground-based air defense," Austin said. "And this contact group will continue driving hard to help Ukraine defend the skies. In recent weeks, Russia has intensified its sordid bombardment of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. And the Kremlin's cruelty only underscores Ukraine's need for a stronger, layered ground-based air defense architecture."
The group members also discussed plans for training Ukrainian pilots on fourth generation fighter aircraft, including the American-made F-16. "Planning and executing this training will be a significant undertaking, but the coordination of this contact group will help make that possible," he said.
Austin thanked Denmark and the Netherlands, which volunteered to lead a European coalition in providing F-16 training for Ukrainian forces. "In the coming weeks, my Dutch and Danish counterparts will work with the United States and other allies to develop a training framework," he said. "Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to contribute to training, and we expect more countries to join this important initiative soon."
It will take some time for Ukraine to field a viable F-16 capability. It takes time to train all those involved in flying, maintaining, arming and sustaining the aircraft. Austin said it "is an important example of our long-term commitment to Ukraine security."
Milley said at the beginning of the conflict, the United States and other contact group nations put the emphasis on ground-based air defense as the best and quickest way to deny Russia air superiority over Ukraine. He noted that 10 F-16s are a billion dollars with sustainment costs of another billion.
"So, you're talking about $2 billion for 10 aircraft," he said. "The Russians have thousands of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. So, if you're going to contest Russia in the air, you're going to need a substantial amount of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. If you look at the cost curve and do the analysis, the smartest thing to have done is exactly what we did do, which is provide a significant amount of integrated air defense to cover the battlespace and deny the Russians the airspace. And that is exactly what happened."
For the future, F-16s have a role, the general said. But it is "going to take a considerable length of time to build up an air force that's the size and scope and scale that'll be necessary."
The contact group also covered sustaining the fight, and the defense leaders discussed industrial base initiatives and coordinating production of critical equipment, Austin said. Contact group members will continue to work together to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and Austin sees something similar for F-16 capabilities.
Milley said the Ukrainian leaders remain steadfast. "The bravery and the courage of the Ukrainian people is exemplary and inspires literally the world, and their courage and tactical skill in the face of extreme adversity is second to none," he said.
They have succeeded in defending their land. Milley said Russian President Vladimir Putin envisioned a swift victory over Ukraine. "He could not have been more wrong," he said. "The Ukrainian people remain resolute, and their spirit is unyielding."
The nations of the contact group are also steadfast, Austin said. "That's because nations of goodwill don't want to live in a world where autocrats can invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity," he said. "So, we're going to keep strengthening Ukraine's position on a battlefield. We're going to get Ukraine's defenders what they need, when they need it. And we're going to remain united. And we're going to stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes."