Ukrainian Pilots Could Begin Training This Summer on F-16 Jets in Europe

Foreign Affairs

Washington: In a boost to Ukraine on the ongoing conflict with Russia, Ukrainian pilots could begin training to fly US-made F-16 fighter jets “within weeks or months,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. This new step is expected to bolster the country’s long-term security as it fights to retake Russian-occupied territory in the east.

That training is slated to take place in Europe, outside of Ukraine, Ryder said. American and European officials are still working out the details of who would send those jets, instructors and other resources to support the months long process, he told reporters at a briefing.

Troels Lund Poulsen, Denmark’s acting defence minister, also suggested that training could begin in July, Politico reported. Denmark is spearheading the initiative alongside the US, United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands, with the support of other NATO members that fly the F-16, like Poland.

“My expectation is that by the end of June, we’ll have it officially set up, so we can hopefully start after that,” Poulsen told reporters in Brussels. “It’s probably an effort that will take up to six months before we have the facilities in place so that we can fly F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine.”

Arming Ukraine with F-16s is intended to be one element of the country’s long-term efforts to bolster its military and its ties with the international community, not as additional firepower in the country’s widely anticipated spring counteroffensive. F-16 Fighting Falcons can tote up to two 2,000-pound bombs, four air-to-air missiles and two 2,400-pound fuel tanks, according to the US Air Force. The airframes are designed for aerial dogfighting and ground strikes and can locate targets in any weather.

The US fleet of more than 800 jets, which includes single-seat F-16C models and two-seat F-16D models, is around three decades old. F-16s are also widely used by militaries around the world.

Ukraine has pushed its international backers to provide the jets for months, arguing it needs the superior firepower to make up for combat losses and make significant progress against Russian troop positions.

The US Air Force concluded that Ukrainians could learn to operate F-16s in four months, rather than 18 months as previously thought.

“At the last Ukraine Defence Contact Group in April, and then shortly afterwards, Secretary Austin had received several requests from countries seeking US permission to train Ukrainians on the F-16,” Ryder said. “He subsequently took that matter, introduced it into our National Security Council policy process as part of a conversation about how we support Ukraine in the mid- to long-term, in terms of their defence needs.”

Austin’s recommendation to the White House that the US should green-light its allies to train Ukrainians on F-16s came ahead of last week’s G7 summit in Japan, Ryder said.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the change of heart in a Tweet over the weekend. “A new jet coalition was born today!” he said on Twitter May 20. “Ukrainian pilots are looking forward to starting their training on F-16 fighter jets. They will now be able to support their brothers and sisters-in-arms on land and on sea to win this war.”

The US is beginning to consider Ukraine’s long-term needs while being mindful of the most effective and efficient ways to spend its security assistance dollars, which it says are on resources like ground-based air defences, ammunition and logistics. Western officials have estimated around 200,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainian service members have been killed or wounded in the war so far.