Pentagon Plans to Begin Training Ukrainian Pilots on F-16s in U.S.

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The decision is a shift from last week, when a U.S. official said the pilots could be trained in the United States if European training programs reached capacity.

A worker examining the underside of a missile attached to an F-16 under an outdoor hangar.
A U.S. Air Force mechanic working on an F-16 fighter jet in 2021. The Pentagon will begin training Ukrainian pilots on the planes in the United States as early as next month, according to a U.S. official.Credit…Fadel Senna/Agency French Presse — Getty Images

Eric SchmittLara Jakes

By Eric Schmitt and Lara Jakes

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Lara Jakes from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

The Pentagon said on Thursday that it plans to begin training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets in the United States in September.

Defense Department officials said last week that Ukrainian pilots would be trained in the United States if a European coalition effort to instruct dozens of pilots, led by the Netherlands and Denmark, reached capacity.

But the approach is now changing to also bring several Ukrainian pilots and dozens of maintenance and other support personnel for training in the United States as soon as Ukraine identifies them, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

“We want to do everything we can to help move this effort along as quickly as possible in support of Ukraine,” he said.

The decision was announced on Thursday, timed to Ukraine’s Independence Day.

But it will be months, at least, before the F-16s are sent to battle. It was only last Thursday that a U.S. official said the Biden administration would allow allies to send the American-designed jets to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, predicted this week that it would take six to seven months before F-16s were sent to Ukraine, following training for the country’s pilots and necessary support staff. That means the planes will not play a role in Ukraine’s current counteroffensive.

“This is about the long-term support to Ukraine,” General Ryder said. “This is not about the counteroffensive that they’re conducting right now.”

The pilots will first receive English-language training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in September. Then in October, they will start months of flight training from the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., which has trained aviators from 25 countries, General Ryder said.

The Ukrainian pilots will take several courses, the general said, including basic flight maneuvers and weapons as well as more advanced instruction in combat tactics. It could take five to eight months to certify each pilot, depending on their previous flying experience, he said.

“We’re going to work as fast as we can,” General Ryder said. “But what you don’t want to do is rush a pilot and train them in a high-performance combat aircraft, and then put them in harm’s way not fully prepared.”

A small number of Ukrainian pilots had received training in the United States before President Biden decided in May to allow European countries with U.S.-made F-16s to train Ukrainian aviators.

This past winter, the U.S. Air Force hosted two Ukrainian pilots who had flown Soviet-era jets to see how they would fare on the F-16. In an assessment dated March 22, Air Force officials concluded that at least some Ukrainian pilots could be trained to fly the F-16 in four to five months.

The assessment was based on a 12-day evaluation of the two Ukrainian pilots who underwent flight simulations at the Morris air base over the winter. It found that the two pilots still needed certain technical skills, including understanding the Western cockpit’s instruments and becoming comfortable flying in American-standard formation with other aircraft.

Norway said on Thursday that it would donate F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, which would make it the third NATO country to do so after the Netherlands and Denmark. And Portugal said it also would train Ukrainian pilots and engineers to fly or maintain the F-16s.

With the new commitment, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has estimated that his country will receive at least 61 F-16s — enough for as many as four squadrons.

Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared four Pulitzer Prizes. More about Eric Schmitt

Lara Jakes is a foreign correspondent focused on the war in Ukraine. She has been a diplomatic and military correspondent in Washington and a war correspondent in Iraq, and has reported and edited from more than 60 countries over the last 25 years. More about Lara Jakes

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