The Pentagon will begin training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets inside the US and could start as early as September, a US official told The New York Times on Thursday.
The US initially said that the training would only be conducted in Europe unless the countries leading it, the Netherlands and Denmark, reached capacity. “[We’re] open to training existing pilots if capacity is reached in Europe,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said on Monday.
“That’s the condition. So, if Denmark and the Netherlands are taking the lead on training, if they just do not have the capacity … to train as many pilots as Ukraine wants to send or plans to send, then we will … help train stateside,” she added.
The US official speaking to the Times said the training in the US would start with English lessons in Texas followed by months of flying lessons in Arizona. Earlier this year, the Air Force concluded that at least some Ukrainian pilots could learn to operate F-16s within four to five months, but it’s not clear how long the full training process will take inside the US.
The Washington Post recently reported that the training in Europe involves four months of English classes and then six months of combat training, meaning the first class of Ukrainian pilots won’t complete the process until around next summer. However long the training takes, it’s clear that Ukraine will not be using F-16s on the battlefield this year.
On Sunday, the Netherlands and Denmark became the first countries to formally pledge that they will be providing Ukraine with F-16s once the training is complete. The US hasn’t made any pledges to send planes yet, but the Biden administration has not ruled out the possibility.
The provision of F-16s to Ukraine marks a significant escalation of US and NATO support for Ukraine and demonstrates how the Western alliance is expecting to support the war for the long term. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has noted that F-16s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and has said Moscow will view the jets as a nuclear threat.
In the early days of the war, NATO ruled out providing Ukraine with Soviet-made fighter jets over fears that Moscow would perceive the move as NATO directly entering the war. But earlier this year, Poland and Slovakia took the step of sending Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets.