WASHINGTON — The U.S. will begin training Ukrainian F-16 pilots within two months, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a briefing Thursday.
While he didn’t give specific numbers, he said there would be “several” pilots and “dozens” of maintainers trained. This follows comments earlier in the week that the U.S. would participate in the process only if the Netherlands and Denmark — who are leading the transfer of planes — reached capacity.
“We know that as the Danes and the Dutch prepare to train those pilots that at a certain point in time in the future, capacity will be reached,” Ryder said.
The training will begin in October at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, and will be conducted by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing, Ryder said. In September, the pilots will first receive English language training tailored to the training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Details on the curriculum, including its speed and the kind of training that will be offered, are still uncertain, Ryder said. They partially will depend on the experience level of the Ukrainian pilots.
The 162nd Wing carries out international F-16 pilot training and has trained pilots from 25 countries to fly the fourth-generation fighter, the Air Force said in a fact sheet. Morris Air National Guard Base sits next to the Tucson International Airport and uses some of the airport’s facilities such as its runway.
The wing has three squadrons that fly its F-16 Fighting Falcons, as well as maintenance squadrons to keep the fighters in the air and other units.
An Air Force official said in a Thursday email that pilots without prior flight experience could learn to fly the F-16 in about eight months, as part of the service’s standard F-16 basic qualification course.
Pilots who have previous experience flying other fighters can learn to fly the F-16 in about five months under the Air Force’s transition qualification track, the official said.
The F-16, versions of which have been flown by the Air Force for more than 40 years, can carry weapons such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and AIM-120 advanced medium range air-to-air missile, or AMRAAM. It can fly of speeds up to Mach 2, and has a total range of about 2,000 miles, according to the Air Force’s website.
In total, up to 61 Dutch and Danish F-16s could eventually be transferred to Ukraine. The Netherlands have 42 available, according to Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Denmark said Aug. 20 it would send 19 F-16s to Ukraine. Because the planes are an American system, they first need to be approved by the State Department — a process Secretary of State Antony Blinken said would be expedited.
The Danish military announced Aug. 20 that it had started training eight Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s as part of this effort, and that another 65 service members will be trained to maintain the fighters and provide other support. Those Ukrainians have already arrived at Skrydstrup Air Base in Denmark, the nation said.
Other countries in Europe, including Greece and Norway, will also contribute, either training pilots or donating fighters.
“Our F-16 coalition is proving its efficiency,” Zelenskyy wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday.
Today’s announcement is the latest milemarker in the effort to deliver the fighters to Ukraine, which has been asking for them for more than a year. Initially, the administration declined. Yet, as with so many other systems eventually sent to Kyiv during the war, that stance eventually changed.
“We could certainly have started earlier, but there were much higher priorities,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in May.
The fighters may be a symbolic victory for Ukraine. But they won’t aid its slogging counteroffensive, which has so far failed to puncture dug-in Russian defensive lines. The fighters aren’t expected to arrive until mid-to-late 2024, and air defenses on both sides of the war still threaten anything flying.
Instead, the aircraft are part of a long game to improve Ukraine’s self-defense. The focus now is on supplying the planes and training personnel, but Kyiv will also need improved airfields and ground equipment to keep operating them once delivered, Ryder said.
“We’re talking months, not weeks, obviously. And as we said from the very beginning in May, this is about the long term support to Ukraine,” Ryder said.
Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.