By Oren Liebermann and Haley Britzky
The US has announced that it will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 jets in October.
“Following English language training for pilots in September, F-16 flying training is expected to begin in October at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, facilitated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing,” Pentagon Spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday at a press briefing.
“Although we do not have specific numbers to share at this time in regards to how many Ukrainians will participate in this training, we do anticipate it will include several pilots and dozens of maintainers.”
Earlier on Thursday, two US officials told CNN an announcement of the training program was coming. The officials said the pilots still need to go through English language training before they can begin learning to operate the fourth-generation American jets. The language classes will also take place in the US, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Lackland is home to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center, which provides English language training for international military and civilian personnel.
Ukraine put forward a list of approximately 32 pilots who are ready to begin training on F-16 fighter jets, according to another US official, but most did not have a strong enough command of the English language yet, a necessary requirement since the jet’s instrumentation and manuals are all in English.
The pilots, along with some personnel who will receive training on maintaining the aircraft, could arrive in the US as soon as next month, one official said. Once the language instruction is complete, the Ukrainian pilots will be able to begin training to fly the F-16s, one official said. It is not yet clear how long it will take to train the pilots, who have flown Soviet-era MIG and Sukhoi fighters, to fly more modern western jets.
For American F-16 pilots, training can take anywhere from eight months for brand new pilots, to five months for pilots with more experience, Ryder said Thursday.
He also explained that the training will include a number of specific instructions, including fundamental skills like formation flying and basic fighter maneuvers, to combat maneuvering, tactical intercepts, suppression of enemy air defenses, and how to cope with G-force. All of that is in addition to the training for logistics and maintenance personnel.
“So training all of those maintainers on how to maintain this aircraft so that it can stay in the air, training the ground support, air traffic controllers, the fuelers, the communications associated with that – all of that is entailed in maintaining this this platform.”
The US decided to preemptively arrange training for Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 fighter jets after recognizing that training in Europe would eventually reach capacity, Ryder said Thursday.
“So really, as we looked at our European allies providing this training, recognizing the fact that we want to do everything we can to help move this effort along as quickly as possible in support of Ukraine, we know that as the Danes and the Dutch prepare to train those pilots, at a certain point in time in the future, capacity will be reached,” Ryder said. “So preemptively, acknowledging that and leaning forward in order to assist with this effort is the impetus for why we’re doing this now.”
Morris Air National Guard base hosted two Ukrainian fighter pilots in March to evaluate how fast they can learn to fly the F-16, a program which showed the Ukrainian pilots demonstrated above average abilities in several different areas.
The base is also home to the 162nd Wing, a part of the Arizona Air National Guard whose mission is to train international partners on the F-16. The unit has trained pilots from 25 different countries to fly the fourth-generation jet.
In honor of Ukrainian Independence Day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “The United States is proud to stand with Ukraine, and we will continue to ensure that it has what it needs to fight for its freedom.” Repeating a promise often made by the Biden administration, he said in a statement that the US will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes in its fight for security and freedom.”
Earlier this week, Denmark and the Netherlands – the two countries leading the coalition to train Ukrainians to fly and operate F-16 fighter jets – committed to send aircraft to Ukraine. Denmark pledged to send 19 F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine over the next several years. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky said the Netherlands would provide 42 F-16s to Ukraine, though the Dutch Prime Minister did not commit to providing all of them to Kyiv.
On Sunday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukrainian pilots and technical crews have already begun training on the jets. Reznikov said the “minimal term” for the training is six months, though it would be up to the instructors to decide how long the course will run.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force said F-16s can “change the course of events” and allow Kyiv to achieve “air superiority in the occupied territories.”