It’s Back-to-School Season for Ukrainian Fighter Pilots

Czech President Petr Pavel was wrapping up a routine press conference in Copenhagen last week when a Ukrainian lawmaker burst through the scrum of reporters with a plea for air cover. Ukraine has gotten plenty of bazookas, bombs, and artillery shells, but what it has not yet gotten are advanced Western fighter jets that could help it battle for air superiority against a much bigger foe.

“We need F-16s,” blurted out Oleksandra Ustinova, a member of the Voice party in the Ukrainian parliament. “Thank you for the ammunition, but if we cannot have sky superiority, we’re done. And we want to win this war.”

Pavel told her it would take time. “I was nine months pregnant when the war started,” Ustinova said. “My baby is walking already, and I still keep hearing, ‘It takes time.’” She handed him a T-shirt emblazoned with an F-16, the decades-old mainstay of the U.S. Air Force.

The episode between Pavel and Ustinova is emblematic of Ukraine’s political fight to keep the flow of Western weapons coming in as it fends off the Russian invasion. Munitions have come in, but they have not always been what Kyiv wanted. F-16s are a case in point: They’re expensive, hard to train up on, and potentially escalatory. But useful in a shooting war.

The United States has been slow on the uptake—but that is now changing. The Biden administration is making a few big moves. First, it’s open to training Ukrainian pilots on the F-16, a fourth-generation fighter jet that is very different from the MiGs and Sukhois that Ukrainian pilots grew up flying. Second, it is now open to third-country transfers of U.S.-made F-16s to Ukraine. And finally, Washington might open the falcon firehose itself.

The beginning of the training program marks a major reversal, including from President Joe Biden himself, that the United States would not send fighter jets to Ukraine. But the West is trying to make sure that Ukraine isn’t eyeing too many shiny objects. The first phase will be training in Britain; other countries are queuing up.

Approximately 20 Ukrainian pilots will be entering initial training, a British government spokesperson said. “This will be ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots who will then be ready for more specific F-16 (or other) training,” the spokesperson said. 

The Biden administration has not immediately made clear where the F-16 training will take place, or when. On Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters that the United States and top allies in Europe were “working through” the dates, locations, and what country would provide the training. Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said on Wednesday in a letter to parliament that the military was ready to begin training Ukrainian pilots as soon as possible; Norway also announced on Wednesday it was ready to join the coalition. 

But the prospect of getting dozens of Ukrainian fighter pilots up to speed on the F-16 after three decades of operating Soviet-era aircraft presents a challenge for Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and the United States, the six countries in charge of the international coalition. An experienced American fighter pilot with air-to-ground combat credentials can go to a short F-16 school for 12 to 16 check rides and be out in three months. 

Ukraine hopes to send cadets that already have strong English-speaking skills to speed up the training, which will include work adapted from NATO’s “Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals” course, and will include simulators and actual training. An internal U.S. Air Force assessment first seen by Yahoo News said that Ukrainian fliers could complete training in four months, based on an evaluation of two Ukrainian pilots given a brief tuneup course on the F-16 and nearly 12 hours of simulator training in Arizona in late February and early March. Still, some experts expect Ukraine’s learning curve will be longer than usual. 

And the window to get the training done is narrowing, especially with European nations eyeing or buying fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets. Both Norway and the Netherlands have shuttered replacement training units to spin up new pilots for F-16s. Britain doesn’t even fly F-16s; it is a co-developer of the 1990s-era Eurofighter Typhoon. 

With training resources limited, sending Ukrainian pilots through the pipeline also risks sending Western fighter pilot trainees to the back of the line in their home countries, said John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. European countries have fewer training squadrons than the United States and tend to train pilots within their operational unit. 

Some European countries are ready to clear their clutter. The Netherlands, for instance, has a bunch of F-16s that it will be happy to sell as it moves to the U.S.-made F-35. Norway has a baker’s dozen.

Given the possible bottlenecks, Western officials have tamped down the idea that the F-16s, if and when delivered to Ukraine, would have an immediate effect in shifting the battlefield reality. Western airplanes can be less durable than Russian airframes in rough conditions, Venable said, which have bigger brakes and higher landing gears than their U.S.-made counterparts, and F-16s are also less able to take off from poorly prepared runways. 

The Russian aircraft that Ukrainian pilots are used to can take unfiltered gasoline better than American fighters, too. Ukrainian fighter pilots could wreck a million-dollar engine if they’re not careful on landing and an F-16 hoovers a rock up into an intake valve. The cockpit doesn’t even look the same: Ukrainian pilots who have mastered MiG fighter jets will have to climb into an airplane with gauges and instruments that aren’t in the same places they’re used to. 

“If you take somebody who’s not used to doing that and bring them into an airplane where the gauges are all in different places, just flying an instrument approach, in bad weather, you can take losses pretty significantly,” Venable said. “That’s not employing the airplane; that’s just taking off and landing in bad weather.”

But Ukrainian and Eastern European officials have already begun to war-game scenarios for employing Western fighters, from air defense to close air support—and even escorting grain-carrying ships through the Black Sea. 

“It’s better late than never,” said Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s former defense minister who now heads up the Northern Europe Policy Centre think tank in Riga. “With F-16s, it will give additional assistance to ground forces. It will give it better cover for operations with tanks, either Leopards or Abrams. And it will neutralize or weaken Russian air capability. So, even if they are shooting missiles from Russian territory, it’s important that they know that they could be hurt.”

Ukrainian officials, including the country’s top diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba, have argued that they need American-made F-16s instead of Soviet-era MiGs, which have been provided to Kyiv by Poland and Slovakia, because the inferior radars and outdated munitions are putting Ukrainian pilots at greater risk of getting shot down by Russian fighters or air defenses that have moved onto occupied soil. 

Ukrainian calls for F-16s grew louder in recent weeks after Russian drones and missiles pounded the central cities of Uman and Dnipro in late April, which had been largely spared from attack since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and after lashing Kyiv with potshots on the early May anniversary of Russia’s World War II victory. Still, Ukrainian air defenses have proved resilient: U.S.-provided Patriot missile systems even struck down a state-of-the-art Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which can travel up to 10 times the speed of sound, during the early May barrage. 

Yet Ukrainian officials are still worried that Russia can flood the zone with superior numbers. “Look, Russia for now has 1,500 of their aircraft, and 400 of them they are using in this war against Ukraine,” said Yehor Cherniev, a Ukrainian lawmaker who serves on the national security committee. Cherniev said that Ukraine is hoping to scale up from about 40 Western jets to 160 to 200 jets.

Nobody is counting on those jets getting into Ukrainian hands before Ustinova, the Ukrainian parliamentarian, sends her kid to kindergarten. “There are 4,600 F-16s in the world,” she said. “We’re asking for less than 1 percent of the jets so far. This is nothing.”

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