WASHINGTON — Denmark and the Netherlands will lead a coalition of partner nations lining up to train Ukraine pilots how to fly F-16 fighter jets, US Defense Secretary Llyod Austin announced today.
Austin, along Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, participated in a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group where the topic of fourth-generation fighter training took center stage, along with ways to fill other critical capability gaps.
“Planning and executing this [F-16] training will be a significant undertaking, but the coordination of this contact group will help make that possible,” Austin said.
“In the coming weeks, my Dutch and Danish counterparts will work with the United States and other allies to develop a training framework,” he later added. “Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to contribute to training and we expect more countries to join.”
For more than a year, Ukraine has been pleading for Western fighter jets that could eventually replace the aging MiG-29s and Su-27s lost in combat, but Washington held off on freeing up F-16s, arguing other defense articles took priority. Then, earlier this month, President Joe Biden notified G-7 leaders that the United States is now ready to support training on that fighter jet fleet, and reportedly said the US wouldn’t block the transfer of allies’ F-16s to Ukraine.
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That notification paved the way for the evolving plan for training. On May 19, an administration official told Breaking Defense the training is expected to begin in the coming weeks in Europe but outside of Ukraine. Each pilot will likely need several months of training — even if that’s much faster than anticipated — and the administration officials said coalition partners will use this buffer to decide who is providing the jets, how many and when.
Neither Austin nor Milley today pinpointed exactly why the US shifted course on the F-16 topic, but on Tuesday Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters that after the April Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, the Pentagon received several requests from countries seeking permission to train Ukrainians on the F-16. Austin then introduced those proposals into the “National Security Council policy process” as part of a conversation mid- to long-term defense needs, and there was “unanimous agreement” that training should proceed, Ryder added.
Even with training poised to start within weeks, Milley warned that it will take a lot of time and money to build up Ukraine’s air force so that it can contend with Russia’s air power.
“If you’re gonna contest Russia in the air, you’re gonna need a substantial [number] of fourth and fifth generation fighters,” Milley said, citing the cost of $2 billion for 10 F-16 aircraft (half for the jets and another half for sustainment).
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall sounded more pessimistic earlier this week when he said he didn’t expect the F-16s to be a “game-changer,” especially if they only come in small numbers.
Still, today Milley said that the F-16s “clearly have a role and Ukraine deserves a capable Air Force” and that this is just the beginning.
“It’s going to take a considerable length of time to build up an Air Force that’s the size and scope and scale that’ll be necessary,” he said.