It will be months, at least, before F-16s are flying over Ukraine, but the United States is expanding patrol flights by the fighter jet right up to the Ukrainian border after debris following a Russian drone attack appeared to have fallen into neighboring Romania this week.
Following a two-day diplomatic mission to Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States would send additional rotations of its F-16s to an ongoing NATO mission to secure the airspace of Romania, a member of the Western military alliance.
The new commitment was announced after a call that Mr. Blinken had on Thursday with Romania’s foreign minister, Luminita Odobescu, to discuss air space security amid an investigation by the government in Bucharest into the origins of the debris.
Mr. Blinken “affirmed our unwavering support to Romania, our NATO ally,” according to a State Department summary of the call.
It was not immediately clear how many more F-16s — which already participate in NATO patrols over Eastern Europe — would be added to the ongoing patrols over Romania, or when they would start. American military officials did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Late on Tuesday, Romanian officials said that debris suspected to be from a Russian drone was found in Romanian territory across the Danube River from the Ukrainian port of Izmail. Russian drones have struck the port city repeatedly in recent weeks as Moscow targets what has been a shipping lifeline for Ukraine.
It remains unclear how the debris got there, including whether it had landed by accident. Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, has warned that if the wreckage turns out to be from a Russian weapon, it would amount to “a serious violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Romania, a NATO allied state.”
But so far, Romania has stopped short of any sign that it might invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the cornerstone of the alliance’s mutual defense pact, that could expand the war.
Throughout the war, NATO aircraft have frequently intercepted Russian fighter jets that have flown too close to allied nations’ airspace. Three weeks ago, British and Danish fighter jets were scrambled to confront Russian bombers that officials said were heading toward Scotland and the Netherlands. The Russian planes turned back without incident.
Ukraine’s military has long coveted the F-16, a sophisticated attack aircraft that has both offensive and defensive capabilities, and allies have so far committed to sending as many as 60 to Kyiv as soon as pilots and support crews can be trained to operate the planes. The training is expected to take at least four to six months, and Ukrainian officials have said the jets are not expected to fly in combat until next year at the earliest.
Andrew Higgins contributed reporting.