WASHINGTON — The House approved $100 million in funding to train Ukrainian pilots to use U.S. aircraft as part of the National Defense Authorization Act it passed 329-101 this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked since March for American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. But Ukrainian pilots accustomed to aging Soviet-era MiG-29s and Sukhoi planes have not been trained to use U.S. fighter jets, a process that could take months.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told Defense News he has been in touch with the Kyiv on the matter and that he added the $100 million for training as an amendment to the defense authorization bill this week in order to facilitate an eventual shift of Ukraine’s military hardware away from Soviet-era technology.
“What we want to do is obviously send a message to authorize the process,” Kinzinger told Defense News. “There is no doubt to me that when this war ends, Ukraine is going to have to be outfitted with western military equipment. Plus, there’s just no more MiGs left and no more MiG supplies.”
The Biden administration has thus far not transferred the requested U.S. aircraft as part of the billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine, generating tension with a vocal contingent of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The United States also declined to facilitate the transfer of Poland’s MiG-29s from Ramstein Air Base in Germany earlier this year after Warsaw made the announcement without consulting Washington.
The Biden administration has remained wary of allowing sensitive U.S. technology to fall into Russian hands on the battlefield and has worried about Moscow’s response should Ukrainian forces use high-end American equipment to attack Russian territory. But Kinzinger said the Ukrainians can be trusted with the equipment.
“They’ve been clear — and they’ve shown this with the weapons they have — they’re not trying to start a war with Russia inside of Russia,” said Kinzinger. “They just want to defend their homeland.”
He noted the United States is ready to start training Ukrainian pilots at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi and possibly in Texas as well. It would take about three months to train the pilots to fly the F-15s and F-16s at a basic level.
The Senate is not expected to vote on its version of the defense authorization bill until September at the earliest, then both chambers must agree on compromise legislation in conference committee. Should Kinzinger’s amendment survive conference, the United States could be training Ukrainian pilots here as soon as next year.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.