Rishi Sunak has ordered the UK ministry of defence to “investigate” what fighter jets Britain could send to Ukraine.
“The PM has tasked the defence secretary with investigating what jets we might be able to give – but, to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability, which is what Ukraine needs most now,” said a Number 10 spokesman.
It comes after Volodymyr Zelensky urged Britain to provide Ukraine with fighter jets in an impassioned speech to MPs in Westminster.
On a surprise visit to London, the Ukrainian president told MPs: “Thank you in advance for all your British planes,” implying that he expects London to sign off on exports in future.
On Wednesday afternoon, Downing Street said Britain would be starting to train Ukrainian fighter pilots “as soon as possible”.
The spokesman added: “We think it is right to provide short-term equipment like Challenger tanks, additional guns, longer-range capabilities that can help win the war now, but also to look to the medium- to long-term to ensure Ukraine has every possible capability it requires.”
Mr Zelensky also paid tribute to King Charles, noting his RAF background and saying: “The king was an air force pilot – and in Ukraine every air force pilot is a king.”
In a warm gesture, he handed Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, a helmet used by one of Ukraine’s fighter pilots. On it was written: ‘Combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom’.
Mr Zelensky said the helmet was used by “one of our most successful aces and one of our kings”, adding: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.” He said he wanted a coalition of nations to supply planes.
He also thanked Britain for “marching with” Ukraine towards “the most important victory of our lifetime” – and singled out Boris Johnson for praise, saying: “London has stood with Kyiv since day one, from the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war.
“Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react. Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely impossible. Thank you.”
Earlier in the day, Britain opened the door to the West sending Ukraine fighter jets with a pledge to train pilots on “Nato-standard” aircraft.
Ahead of Mr Zelensky’s visit, Mr Sunak said: “Since 2014, the UK has provided training to Ukrainian forces, allowing them defend their country, protect their sovereignty and fight for their territory.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future.”
A Number 10 spokesman said the training would be on “Nato-standard” aircraft.
Last month, Mr Sunak appeared to rule out British fighter jets for Ukraine. His spokesman said it was not “practical” to supply aircraft as training would take around 35 months.
Analysts said it was not clear whether Mr Sunak intended to send Ukraine Western-standard jets from Britain’s own arsenal or is planning to use its simulators to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s.
Efforts to train Ukrainian pilots on Nato-standard fighter jets would be likely to focus on simulation to bring them up to scratch with tactics and cockpit procedures.
Greg Bagwell, a retired RAF commander, said: “The UK has synthetic training facilities, which can be used to train on modern tactics and weapon employment.
“Learning to fly an aircraft is a relatively simple transition. Learning how to use the systems to maximum effect is the key part and transferable to most modern types.”
Britain is also set to pledge weapons with “longer-range capabilities”, which Ukraine has said it desperately needs to target Russia’s fragile supply chains, including ammunition depots, warehouses and other infrastructure critical to supporting its invasion.
The “long-range capabilities” could refer to the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which is launched from warplanes and is designed to be hard to spot on radar, making it difficult to shoot down. It also carries a 450kg warhead, twice the size of the one on a US ATACMS ballistic missile.
As well as offers of further weaponry, Britain will pledge to double its training mission for Ukrainian troops. In the past six months, the UK has brought around 10,000 Ukrainian troops to battle readiness alongside other allies.
Mr Sunak will tell Mr Zelensky that Britain can train as many as 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers this year. (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2023)
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