LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has committed to training Ukrainian combat jet pilots, according to a statement made ahead of a Feb. 8 visit to London by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Sunak also offered to bolster other initiatives, including training Ukrainian marines and supplying unspecified longer-range weapons. The deal could also be expanded to include military helicopter pilots, according to recent testimony given to lawmakers.
Zelenskyy and senior officials are meeting in London for a round of engagements with their British counterparts. The Ukrainian president will address Parliament and meet King Charles III; this will be Zelenskyy’s second foreign trip since Russia invaded his country on Feb. 24, 2022.
The leaders will discuss a two-pronged approach to U.K. support for Ukraine, starting with an immediate surge of military equipment to the country to help counter what observers expect to be a fresh Russian offensive in the spring, according to the statement, which also mentioned the reinforcement of long-term support.
Britain and some of its allies have so far declined Ukraine’s requests for modern fighter aircraft, but the statement said the upcoming training “will ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future.”
No details of the pilot training are available, but it’s likely the move would see Ukrainians fly Royal Air Force Hawk jet trainers and Typhoon multirole combat jets, even though Britain would have little in the way of spare training capacity and spare combat jets should they be required for a conflict or crisis.
The Royal Air Force is already training Ukrainian Air Force personnel in niche areas, and the latest pilot training offer could get extended to include helicopter crew.
Speaking to the parliamentary Defence Committee last week, Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the deputy chief of capability at Air Command, said an offer of training to Ukraine was under discussion.
“We have an offer on the table to train helicopter pilots at our school in Shawbury. We have not signed the final deal yet, but we are content to do that,” Knighton said Feb 1.
The pilot offer is part of a wider British initiative to upskill Ukraine’s military. Britain and some of its allies have already trained about 10,000 Ukrainian troops in the U.K. in the last few months, with plans for a further 20,000 soldiers to learn battlefield skills this year, the British government has said.
Ukrainian troops already started arriving in the U.K. to learn how to operate the 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks pledged to the country, and Sunak plans to offer longer-range capabilities, the statement said.
“I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future. It underlines our commitment to not just provide military equipment for the short term, but a long-term pledge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine for years to come,” Sunak said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.