First Ukrainian Pilots Graduate US F-16 Training

The first batch of Ukrainian pilots have graduated from U.S. F-16 training, U.S. officials told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Multiple Ukrainian pilots have graduated from their F-16 training course at the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing in Tucson, Ariz., Arizona National Guard spokesperson Capt. Erin Hannigan said May 23. The 162nd Wing is the U.S. Air Force’s training unit for foreign F-16 pilots.

Hannigan declined to say how many pilots graduated or when they did so, citing operational security. But some Ukrainian pilots are still undergoing training in the U.S., American officials said.

The Ukrainian pilots who graduated F-16 training in Arizona will conduct additional training overseas, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz told Air & Space Forces Magazine May 24.

“A small number of pilots have finished their U.S.-based training and moved forward to the next portion of training outside the United States,” Dietz said. “Additional Ukrainian pilots continue to train in Arizona. While I cannot confirm specific details regarding the training schedules and locations of individual pilots, I can assure you that we continue to work closely with our Ukrainian partners to enhance their operational readiness and interoperability within NATO standards.”

POLITICO first reported the graduation of the Ukrainian pilots.

Pilots arrived in Tucson in multiple tranches. At first, four Ukrainian pilots were undergoing training at the 162nd, which began in late October of last year. In late January, four more Ukrainian pilots arrived. The National Guard said it was planning to train a total of 12 Ukrainian F-16 pilots by the end of fiscal 2024.

The pilot training was expected to be completed between this month and August, Hannigan previously said. That is a longer timeframe than the Pentagon and the Air National Guard initially suggested in the fall when the first pilots began training in October.

“We’re thinking more long-term, so some of the requirements on them has shifted, and so that has necessitated a little bit longer [timeframe],” director of the Air National Guard Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh said at the AFA Warfare Symposium in February.

Airpower has become more prominent in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent weeks, with Russians using fixed-wing aircraft to support their latest offensive.

“Russians are using 300 planes on the territory of Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Reuters on May 20. “We need at least 120, 130 planes to resist in the sky,” he added, referring to F-16s.

Last year, the U.S. and western European nations began parallel programs to train pilots and maintainers. These programs are being coordinated by an air force capability coalition of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States lead. Some European countries are also training Ukrainian pilots who will eventually fly F-16s.

“Everyone is scared of escalation,” Zelenskyy told Reuters. “Everyone has gotten used to the fact that Ukrainians are dying—that’s not escalation for people.”

Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium have pledged to provide Ukraine with F-16s, a move that requires the Biden administration’s approval, which the administration has pledged to do, as the jets are U.S.-made weapons.

Maintenance plans for the jets are murky, and it is unclear when Ukraine will be able to employ them, though U.S. officials previously said it would be before the end of 2024.

Some U.S lawmakers have questions about whether the training program is adequate. 

“Last year, the Biden Administration approved the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to replace Ukraine’s aging and declining fleet of MiG-29s, Su-24s, and Su-25s,” said a recent letter signed by Rep. Michael Turner, the Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee; Rep. Jim Himes, the ranking Democrat on the panel; and other lawmakers. 

“While this was an encouraging step, there remains a critical need for a substantial number of trained pilots to operate these aircraft as the F-16 fighter jets become available to Ukraine,” they wrote in the letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. “According to the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. is on track to graduate only 12 pilots from F-16 training by the end of 2024. Graduating 12 Ukrainian pilots is simply insufficient. Ukraine is at war and slots for Ukraine must be prioritized over other foreign countries.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on May 24 with additional details.