“We are going to push as fast as possible,” Sullivan said during remarks at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo.
The Ukrainians have been pleading for modern fighter jets to help repel Russian invaders for more than a year. President Joe Biden in May lent U.S. support to an international effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, but the U.S. has yet to formally approve the training program, which is required under export restrictions.
In the meantime, a coalition of 11 nations, led by Denmark and the Netherlands, has taken early steps to make the training program a reality. European officials said last week that they hope to begin the training in Denmark in August, and a training center will also be set up in Romania. The U.K., in the meantime, will soon start English language instruction for Ukrainian pilots.
F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin plans to supervise pilot training through a subcontractor, Draken International, according to Ukrainian press reports.
However, countries have been hesitant to commit to sending F-16s from their own fleets to the battlefield after training concludes. Norway has plans to send two trainer aircraft for Ukrainians to learn on, according to a Norwegian defense official, but that has not been announced publicly.
Kirby’s remarks are “aspirational,” as the administration is still working to finalize plans to deliver the jets and train Ukrainian pilots, said a U.S. official, who like the Norwegian official was granted anonymity to speak about a sensitive technology transfer.
The U.S. is working to get Ukraine the F-16s “as quickly as possible, but it will take some time,” the official added. Neither Kirby nor the official specified which countries would be sending their F-16s.
The timeline Kirby laid out is faster than Ukrainian officials have predicted, signaling a new sense of urgency. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a July 12 interview that he expected the first F-16s will fly in Ukrainian skies by the end of the first quarter of 2024.
Kirby’s comments come days after Sullivan was forced to respond to questions about whether the U.S. was committed to training Ukrainian fighter pilots, after POLITICO reported that Europe was still waiting on formal approval from the U.S.
Sullivan stressed that the president had promised to meet “whatever timeline our European partners need.”
“The United States will not be the hold up in ensuring that this F-16 training can get underway,” he told CNN.
Sullivan said the main roadblock was that the European partners needed a few more weeks to create the necessary training infrastructure. He did not commit to a specific timeline for training or delivery.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pressed his Western partners to deliver the jets as soon as possible. Speaking ahead of a NATO defense summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week, he blamed his colleagues for what he characterized as a delay in sending the aircraft.
“We have agreed, we have pressed, and we have a coalition of countries that are ready to start training for Ukrainian pilots. [But] there is no schedule for training missions, and they’re delaying it. I don’t know why they’re doing this,” he said.
Alexander Ward contributed to this report.