‘Big step’: U.S. joins major effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, other jets
The coalition of countries participating in the training effort will decide when to actually provide the jets, how many to send and who will transfer them as the training takes place over the coming months.
Biden’s decision came overnight East Coast time amid a day of deliberations among the leaders of the G-7 nations, but discussions have been in the works for weeks, a second U.S. official said.
The move will “further strengthen and improve the capabilities of the Ukrainian Air Force,” the first official said.
The Defense Department is working to iron out the details, according to a Pentagon official.
The U.S. brought two Ukrainian pilots to Arizona in March to assess their flying skills on fighter jets. During the program, which took place at an Air National Guard base in Tuscon, U.S. military personnel evaluated the pilots’ flying and mission-planning capabilities on aircraft simulators.
But a larger, coordinated effort to train more pilots represents a significant turnaround for the Biden administration, which has resisted calls to conduct a dedicated training program for Ukrainian pilots. DoD officials have argued that the F-16s weren’t necessary for the immediate fight, and have noted that it could take up to a year or more to complete the necessary training. Officials also worried that sending the jets could escalate the conflict because they could be used to hit targets inside Russia.
On Twitter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated the news.
“I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition,” Zelenskyy tweeted. “This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima.”
There is still no plan at present to supply Ukraine with American jets, and there have been no formal requests from allies to transfer their own F-16s to Ukraine, which is a complicated process that will likely take months if and when it happens.
Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands all have surplus aircraft that could be donated to Ukraine as all three countries upgrade to the F-35, according to a person familiar with the discussions. If the countries agreed to send the planes, it would take some time to do the required rework and maintenance to get them into flying shape.
After this story was published, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollengren indicated that her country was on board with the move.
“We welcome the upcoming approval by the United States of the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighterjets. Together with our close allies Denmark, Belgium and the UK we are working on the modalities. We stand ready to support Ukraine on this,” she tweeted.
The Ukrainian government has said that F-16s could perform a variety of roles, including assisting in shooting down Russian missiles and drones headed for Kyiv, and protecting grain shipments through the Black Sea.
The Soviet-era fighter planes flown by Ukraine play a relatively small role in the conflict, over concerns that Russian air defenses would shoot them down if they approached the front lines. American officials have questioned what role the F-16s could play in the war, given the Russian ground-to-air threat.
Any F-16s donated by the U.S. or its allies are unlikely to arrive in Ukraine in time for the anticipated counteroffensive. The U.S., partners and allies have already provided Ukraine with “the vast majority” of what it needs to conduct its counteroffensive this spring and summer, the official said. Efforts to improve the Ukrainian Air Force “reflect our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense,” the official said.
Still, the move sends “a powerful signal of how the United States and our allies and partners are fully united in ensuring Ukraine remains sovereign, independent, and secure with the ability to defend against and deter future attacks.”
The announcement comes before Zelenskyy arrives in Hiroshima to address the G-7 summit this weekend, where his pitch will be heavy on help with reconstruction, as well as the need for air defense systems and F-16s.
The news of the joint training effort brought immediate cheers from Congress, where pressure on Biden to send F-16s has been mounting for months.
“This is a big step. Let’s help Ukraine defend its skies and see an end to Russia’s invasion ASAP. #SlavaUkraini,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in a tweet.
Ahead of the news, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a proponent of the U.S. sending fourth-generation fighters to Ukraine, said the aircraft would be crucial for Ukrainians to fight Russia’s old-fashioned artillery bombardments with modern tactics.
“We’re training them to do it differently, where you coordinate aircraft with the ground forces, with intelligence, with modern communications and all of those work in synchronicity with one another,” Crow told CNN on Friday. “But you can’t do that unless you have all the pieces: battle tanks, long-range artillery fire, aircraft.”
Paul McLeary and Joe Gould contributed to this report.