Ukrainian pilots could begin training to fly U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets “within weeks or months,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Tuesday, a new step toward efforts to bolster the country’s long-term security as it fights to retake Russian-occupied territory in the east.
That training is slated to take place in Europe, outside of Ukraine, Ryder said. American and European officials are still hashing out the details of who would send those jets, instructors and other resources to support the monthslong process, he told reporters at a briefing.
Troels Lund Poulsen, Denmark’s acting defense minister, also suggested Tuesday that training could begin in July, Politico reported. Denmark is spearheading the initiative alongside the U.S., United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands, with the support of other NATO members that fly the F-16, like Poland.
“My expectation is that by the end of June, we’ll have it officially set up, so we can hopefully start after that,” Poulsen told reporters in Brussels. “It’s probably an effort that will take up to six months before we have the facilities in place so that we can fly F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine.”
It’s unclear when Ukraine may receive a separate fleet of combat-ready jets from its foreign partners, or how many aircraft would be donated. Countries could offer up simulators in lieu of airframes to help expedite training as well.
Arming Ukraine with F-16s is intended to be one element of the country’s long-term efforts to bolster its military and its ties with the international community, not as additional firepower in the country’s widely anticipated spring counteroffensive.
The effort may draw on the resources of the U.S. Air Force’s two F-16 units that are permanently stationed in Europe: the 31st Fighter Wing at Italy’s Aviano Air Base, and the 52nd Fighter Wing at Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base. It could also call on the expertise of the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing in Arizona, which hosts the international F-16 training program.
F-16 Fighting Falcons can tote up to two 2,000-pound bombs, four air-to-air missiles and two 2,400-pound fuel tanks, according to the U.S. Air Force. The airframes are designed for aerial dogfighting and ground strikes and can locate targets in any weather.
The U.S. fleet of more than 800 jets, which includes single-seat F-16C models and two-seat F-16D models, is around three decades old. F-16s are also widely used by militaries around the world.
Ukraine has pushed its international backers to provide the jets for months, arguing it needs the superior firepower to make up for combat losses and make significant progress against Russian troop positions.
American leaders had balked at the idea and encouraged Kyiv to focus on more practical needs, like ammunition and robust maintenance, to ward off and ultimately oust Russian forces.
That thinking eventually began to shift, and Ukrainian pilots visited Morris Air National Guard Base in Arizona earlier this year for a two-week study of what it might take to bring the airmen up to speed on the advanced Western jets.
The Air Force concluded that Ukrainians could learn to operate F-16s in four months, rather than 18 months as previously thought, Yahoo! News reported May 18. Air Force Times confirmed the authenticity of the assessment on Monday.
Pressure built throughout the spring to get the U.S. onboard with a plan to bring Ukraine into the F-16 fold.
“At the last Ukraine Defense Contact Group in April, and then shortly afterwards, Secretary Austin had received several requests from countries seeking U.S. permission to train Ukrainians on the F-16,” Ryder said. “He subsequently took that matter, introduced it into our National Security Council policy process as part of a conversation about how we support Ukraine in the mid- to long-term, in terms of their defense needs.”
“There was unanimous agreement that this was something that we should and need to support,” he said.
Austin’s recommendation to the White House that the U.S. should green-light its allies to train Ukrainians on F-16s came ahead of last week’s G7 summit in Japan, Ryder said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the change of heart in a Tweet over the weekend.
“A new jet coalition was born today!” he said on Twitter May 20. “Ukrainian pilots are looking forward to starting their training on F-16 fighter jets. They will now be able to support their brothers and sisters-in-arms on land and on sea to win this war.”
The U.S. must still sign off on the specifics of transferring aircraft to Ukraine to ensure the jets can be configured to their needs without jeopardizing sensitive military data.
“As a U.S.-built platform, clearly, exportability aspects, technology transfer aspects, are things that we’ll be looking at as well,” Ryder said. “We’ll have much more to follow in the days ahead.”
The U.S. is beginning to consider Ukraine’s long-term needs while being mindful of the most effective and efficient ways to spend its security assistance dollars, which it says are on resources like ground-based air defenses, ammunition and logistics.
“If they are not successful in their counteroffensive, then everything else is largely a moot point,” Ryder said.
F-16s are expected to be a hot topic at Thursday’s virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group — the international coalition that has supplied Ukraine with billions of dollars in military equipment and other support since Russia launched a full-scale assault on the former Soviet territory in February 2022.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed security assistance and the latest battlefield movements with Reznikov on Monday, ahead of the wider meeting on Thursday.
Despite reports that Russia has claimed control over the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged is essentially leveled, the Pentagon is skeptical that the latest actions on the ground have made a difference.
The U.S. does not view Russia’s recent progress as a strategic gain, Ryder said, adding that the situation on the ground in Bakhmut remains “very dynamic” and that Ukraine’s defenses around the city remain strong.
“Russian forces have paid an incredibly high price in terms of lives and capability,” he said, noting that Moscow has committed tens of thousands of troops to the area. “Russia does hold a significant amount of territory in and around Bakhmut, but … the Ukrainians are continuing to fight in the vicinity of Bakhmut as well.”
Western officials have estimated around 200,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainian service members have been killed or wounded in the war so far.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.