The Pentagon plans to begin training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets in the United States as early as September, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
Defense Department officials said last week that Ukrainian pilots would be trained in the United States if a European coalition effort to train dozens of pilots, led by the Netherlands and Denmark, reached capacity. But the approach is now changing to also bring Ukrainian pilots for training in the United States as soon as Ukraine identifies them.
It was unclear whether the United States would train pilots originally destined for European training programs or this would be an additional group.
The decision was expected to be announced on Thursday afternoon, timed to Ukraine’s Independence Day.
But, it will be months yet, at least, before the F-16s are sent to battle. It was only last Thursday that an American official said that the Biden administration would allow allies to send the American-designed jets to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, predicted earlier 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.
The pilots will first receive English language training in Texas and then begin months of flight training in Arizona, said the U.S. official who addressed the issue on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss future training plans.
A small number of Ukrainian pilots had received training in the United States prior to a decision by President Biden 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 National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., 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, in what 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 has estimated that Ukraine would receive at least 61 F-16s — enough for as many as four squadrons.