Ukrainian pilots to train on F-16s in US in weeks: Pentagon

Exercise Agile Buzzard boosts regional security and coalition operations

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 510th Fighter Squadron takes off as part of exercise Agile Buzzard at Decimomannu Air Base, Italy, Jan. 14, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Heidi Goodsell)

WASHINGTON — “Several” Ukrainian pilots are expected to head to the United States in coming weeks to learn to fly F-16 Fighting Falcons in a new US-based training program, the Pentagon said today.

“The Department of Defense is announcing today that the United States will soon begin training Ukrainians to fly and maintain F-16 fighter aircraft in support of the international effort to develop and strengthen Ukraine’s long-term defenses,” Pentagon Press Secretary US Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.

Ryder said it was unclear exactly how many pilots would be involved in the training — as they had yet to be selected — except he expected “several” of them, along with “upwards of dozens” of maintainers. 

The announcement is the latest evolution of the Biden administration’s stance on F-16s for Ukraine, as it had previously argued against sending F-16s to Ukraine at all, then only said it would support a Europe-led training regime, only to come around to stateside training for pilots who will eventually fly jets donated from other nations.

The tentative plan in the US now is for the Ukrainian pilots to begin English language classes in September at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, before moving over to Morris Air National Guard Base in Ariz., where F-16 flight training is planned to kick off in October, Ryder said.

Kyiv had been pleading for more than a year for Western fighter jets to replace the aging MiG-29s and Su-27s lost in combat, before the Biden administration announced in May that it would support partner nations’ push to launch a joint training program. Denmark and the Netherlands stepped up to lead a coalition of partner nations to train Ukraine pilots how to fly F-16 fighter jets in Europe, but that training has not yet begun.

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On Monday, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that the US could also host training stateside if Denmark and the Netherlands “do not have the capacity… to train as many pilots as Ukraine wants to send or plans to send.”

The US-based training, Ryder said today, will “complement” ongoing efforts in Europe. Ryder said that the US anticipated that pilot training capacity would be maxed out in Europe, so US officials decided to proactively train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 to get ahead of the curve. 

As for the actual number of F-16 aircraft bound for Ukraine, Denmark is expected to provide 19 jets, while the Netherlands has 42 in its air force but hasn’t disclosed how many it will send.

“We agree to transfer F-16 aircraft to Ukraine and the Ukrainian Air Force in close cooperation with the US and other partners, when the conditions for such a transfer are met. Conditions include, but are not limited to, successfully selected, tested and trained Ukrainian F-16 personnel as well as necessary authorizations, infrastructure and logistics,” Denmark and the Netherlands wrote in an Aug. 20 joint statement.  

Today, Norway also announced plans to donate jets, but did not disclose how many.

Since the planes were originally made in the US, the US government must approve of third-party transfers. Singh noted on Monday that for any third-party transfer to be completed, Ukrainian pilots must meet “certain criteria” including English language training and logistics on the ground.  

“Once that criteria is met we’ll be in a position to authorize the transfer,” she added.

Today Ryder said F-16s would be delivered by Europeans when training is complete.

“We’re talking months, not weeks,” Ryder said. Still, he said F-16 training was more about the long-term security for Ukraine than the ongoing counter-offensive.

Breaking Defense’s Tim Martin contributed reporting from Belfast.

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