The US has started training Ukrainian pilots in Arizona on how to fly F-16 fighter jets this week, marking another step toward arming Kyiv with US-made warplanes.
An Air Force spokesperson told Air & Space Forces Magazine that a “small number” of Ukrainian pilots are training with the 162nd Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard in Tucson.
The spokesperson did not give a definitive timeline on when the training will be completed, saying it will take “several months.” Foreign F-16 pilots also need to take English lessons, which Ukrainians started last month in Texas.
When President Biden first approved a plan to arm Ukraine with F-16s earlier this year, it was sold as a European-led effort. Training classes started in Europe in August, but soon after, the Pentagon said it would also train Ukrainian pilots inside the US.
So far, the Netherlands and Denmark have pledged to give F-16s to Ukraine, but it will still take some time until they can be used in battle. The US has left open the possibility of providing its own F-16s, which will become more likely if Congress approves the $61 billion in additional spending on the war that President Biden is seeking.
The provision of F-16s marks a significant escalation in US and NATO support for Ukraine. In the early days of the conflict, NATO ruled out arming Ukraine with warplanes over concerns Russia would view the move as the alliance directly entering the war. But as escalation concerns have waned, Poland and Slovakia have sent Soviet-made MiG-29 jets, and F-16s will eventually be on their way.