Exclusive: U.S. could train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s in 4 months

Yahoo News has obtained a U.S. Air Force assessment of two Ukrainian pilots who outperformed stated Pentagon expectations over two weeks in a flight simulator at a U.S. air base.

Two United States Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly in formation.
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly in formation during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises on May 9 in the Pampanga province, Philippines. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Yahoo News has exclusively obtained an internal U.S. Air Force assessment that concludes it would take only four months to train Ukrainian pilots to operate American-made F-16 fighter jets, a far shorter time frame than what has been repeatedly cited by Pentagon officials.

Ukrainian pilots used simulators in Arizona

The document, which was shared with a number of NATO allies who fly F-16s, contains a detailed assessment undertaken in late February and early March at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., home to the 162nd Wing of the U.S. Air Force. Two Ukrainian airmen, one qualified on the MiG-29, the other on the Su-27, were given “no formal training” on the F-16, according to the assessment, other than a brief familiarization. They were then tested on a flight simulator, conducting “9 simulator events covering 11.5 total hours.”

The Su-27 and the MiG-29 are both Soviet-era fighter jets, which constitute the bulk of what remains of Ukraine’s air force. Both Ukrainian pilots were assessed by four experienced U.S. Air Force instructors, each of whom had clocked thousands of hours flying F-16s.

The assessment, written by Lt. Col. Jared P. White of the 162nd, concludes that the Ukrainian pilots were able to carry out a number of “relatively technical” maneuvers in their simulated environments such as landing the aircraft after losing an engine in a scenario called a “flameout.” “After a single demonstration ... both pilots were able to successfully land the aircraft from an overhead simulated flameout (SFO) pattern. This is a relatively technical skill that must be continually practiced throughout an F-16 pilot’s career,” the document states. Both pilots were also able to “execute mock attacks based on parameters communicated while they were flying the sim.”

Reasons for concern

Ukrainian air force pilots sit on an Su-25 ground attack jet as they pose for a photo.
Ukrainian air force pilots pose for a photo on an Su-25 ground attack jet on their base in eastern Ukraine on May 4. (Libkos/AP)

The main training issue identified in the evaluation was the Ukrainian pilots not being comfortable with the complex avionics of the F-16, which displays information in English. Language ability is elsewhere listed as a “concern,” although the assessors state there was a “noted improvement in English aptitude” over the course of two weeks for both Ukrainian pilots. Unsurprisingly, both the Su-27 and MiG-29 pilots were unfamiliar with flying U.S. standard multi-aircraft formations, having been trained on Soviet-era tactics.

Despite these drawbacks, the report concludes that “given the current skill set demonstrated by the Ukrainian Air Force pilot ... four months is a realistic training timeline.”

Pressure on allies mounts

The document will increase pressure on Ukraine’s major foreign allies, such as the U.S., some of whom had claimed that Western aircraft are too sophisticated and would therefore take too long to train pilots in order to have an impact in the war between Ukraine and Russia. For instance, Colin Kahl, outgoing U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in February, claimed that training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s would take “about 18 months,” the same time Kahl said it would take to deliver these aircraft to Ukraine.

A billboard in Warsaw, Poland, reads: Biden: Give F-16 to Ukraine.
A billboard requests help from President Biden during his visit to Warsaw, Poland, on Feb. 22. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This revelation that Ukrainians could be combat-ready on F-16s much faster than expected comes amid an international push to supply Kyiv with modern Western fighter jets. In a Downing Street statement released Monday during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent visit to the United Kingdom, the British government reiterated its commitment to help train Ukrainian pilots as part of a program to “build a new Ukrainian air force with NATO-standard, F16 jets.” The U.K. has been characteristically bullish about the supply of Western aircraft to Ukraine, despite not operating F-16s in the Royal Air Force. British Member of Parliament Alicia Kearns, chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Yahoo News that the USAF assessment “challenged some of the arguments against providing jets to our Ukrainian friends.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson said Tuesday that the U.K. was cooperating with the Netherlands to form “an international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, supporting everything from training to procuring F-16 jets.” The statement came after a meeting between Sunak and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, another outspoken supporter of Ukraine’s security assistance, at a Council of Europe summit in Iceland. Rutte had previously said that “nothing is beyond the realm of possibility to the extent that it helps to deter Russian aggression” when asked about the prospect of supplying Dutch F-16s to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speak to each other in a garden.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Chequers in Aylesbury, England, on Monday. (Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Ukrainians have repeatedly asked for the supply of Western fighter jets to replace its dwindling stock of ex-Soviet MiG-29s and Su-27s, which have seen extensive use since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 and have suffered significant combat attrition. Ukraine has lost “over 60” aircraft, top U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker said at a conference in Colorado on March 6. Reacting to the British and Dutch announcements, Andriy Yermak, a key Zelensky aide, said, “We need F-16s, and I am grateful to our allies for their decision to work in this direction, including training our pilots.”