LONDON — Britain is to start elementary flight training for Ukrainian pilots as part of a new military support package announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a face-to-face meeting in the U.K. with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday.
Sunak linked the training program to efforts by the U.K. and others to equip the Ukrainian Air Force with Lockheed Martin-made F-16 aircraft, which he called “Ukraine’s fighter jets of choice.”
During the meeting, which took place at the prime minister’s Chequers country retreat just outside of London, the British government announced it would step up the supply of air defense missiles and 200-kilometer-range (124-mile-range) attack drones as part of a steadily growing arms package supplied by the U.K. to Ukraine.
Last week, Britain became the first Western nation to supply long-range cruise missiles to Ukrainian forces when the Defence Ministry announced it was already delivering MBDA-built Storm Shadow weapons to equip Kyiv’s Soviet-era combat jets with a potent strike capability.
Earlier this year, Britain led the way with the supply of Western main battle tanks to Ukraine, which is fighting off a Russian invasion.
The British Royal Air Force doesn’t operate F-16s, but Sunak announced in February the country’s intention to provide pilot training at a time when arguments over whether the West will accede to Kyiv’s request for modern F-16 fighters were heating up.
Debates within NATO nations over providing Ukraine with combat jets continues unabated. But as the supply of Storm Shadow cruise missiles illustrates, capability that was once off the table can become acceptable to donate.
Ukraine’s president told reporters after the talks at Chequers that the issue was a “very important topic for us because we can’t control the sky. ... I think you will hear important decisions in the closest time, but we have to work a bit more.”
The British government has pledged to “adapt the program used by U.K. pilots to provide Ukrainians with piloting skills they can apply to different kinds of aircraft.”
The training could begin later this summer.
British military training, including that for elementary and basic flights, is largely provided by the Lockheed Martin-led Ascent joint venture, which also includes Babcock International.
Zelenskyy’s talks in the U.K. follow visits to Italy, France and Germany over the last few days.
Italian officials pledged open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine’s cherished aim to join the European Union.
Premier Giorgia Meloni, who staunchly supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond.” Since the war began, Italy has contributed about €1 billion (U.S. $1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
France promised to supply dozens of light tanks, armored vehicles and more air defense systems “in the weeks ahead,” without giving specific numbers. About 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers would also receive training in France this year and nearly 4,000 others in Poland as part of a wider European effort, according to the office of the French president.
Germany dedicated its largest military support package for Ukraine to date, including arms deliveries worth €2.7 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.