NATO’s F-16 Transfer to Ukraine Is Limited by Pilots, Combat-Ready Aircraft

A Ukrainian official recently lamented that Western plans to transfer advanced aircraft to Kyiv moved too slowly and will no longer be a difference-maker

The head of US European Command told Congress that training Ukrainian pilots on advanced American-made fighter jets was progressing slowly. One of the primary suppliers of F-16s to Ukraine, the Netherlands, said that only half of its planes are combat ready. The planned transfers have been delayed almost a year since they were announced last spring, leading some Ukrainian officials to believe that the weapons will no longer be a game changer.

On Wednesday, General Christopher Cavoli told the House Armed Force Committee that Ukrainian training was making slow progress, stressing the challenges of transitioning from Kyiv’s current fleet of Soviet aircraft to NATO fighter jets. “It’s a particularly difficult jump to go from the older Soviet-era stuff – aircraft that the Ukrainians had been flying, maintaining, and supporting. It’s tough to go from that to a modern fourth-gen aircraft like the F-16,” he explained.

Cavoli added that a shortage of Ukrainian pilots posed another major obstacle, telling the committee that Kiev had a limited number of airmen to send for training as many are needed for operations inside the country. He said the first step was for the pilots to receive introductory English language courses.

After learning some English, the airmen will enter basic pilot training. Cavoli confirmed that some Ukrainians had already reached this stage of the process. Those who graduate must show they are proficient pilots before finally training to fly the F-16.

Last year, the White House backed a NATO proposal that would see Ukrainian troops trained on F-16s in member states, with the aircraft to be transferred to Kyiv afterward. However, the program has faced a series of delays.

According to some Ukrainian officials, those delays have severely diminished any major advantages the F-16s would have given to Kiev. “Often, we just don’t get the weapons systems at the time we need them – they come when they’re no longer relevant,” a high-ranking official told POLITICO. “F-16s were needed in 2023; they won’t be right for 2024.”

In addition to delays, Ukraine will receive only a limited number of combat-capable F-16s. While the Netherlands plans to send 22 of the advanced aircraft, only 12 will be ready to fight when they arrive. The F-16s Amsterdam is preparing to transfer were previously retired, with some in need of significant repairs or refurbishment before they are airworthy.

The same is true for the F-16s that Denmark and Norway will send to Ukraine. While the numbers have not been publicly announced, both Copenhagen and Oslo will send Kiev retired aircraft, and some will be unequipped for combat.

Kyle Anzalone is the opinion editor of, news editor of the Libertarian Institute, and co-host of Conflicts of Interest.