Ukraine is one step closer to acquiring F-16 fighter jets, one of the most advanced combat aircraft in the world after the US and several European countries agreed to train its pilots on the American-made warplanes. The training program, which has already begun, is seen as a game-changer for Ukraine’s air defence and a deterrent against Russia’s aggression.
Ukraine has been seeking F-16s for years, as its current fleet of Soviet-era jets is outdated and outmatched by Russia’s modern fighters. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked his Western allies to provide his country with F-16s, saying that Kyiv “can’t control the sky” and needs to create a jet coalition with major powers from the EU and the UK.
Last week, his plea was finally answered, as US President Joe Biden announced that he would allow Ukrainian pilots to train on F-16s, a decision that was welcomed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Delivery of the jets to Ukraine is expected to follow at a later date, according to US officials.
The training program will involve several European countries that already operate F-16s, such as Poland, Britain and the Netherlands. Poland, which shares a border and a language with Ukraine, has offered to host the training on its territory. Poland has also transitioned from Soviet jets to F-16s in the past, so it can share its experience and expertise with Ukraine.
The training could take between four to six months, depending on the level of proficiency and experience of the Ukrainian pilots. According to an internal US Air Force assessment, some Ukrainian pilots could be ready to fly F-16s in less than half a year, based on a 12-day evaluation of two Ukrainian Air Force officers who underwent flight simulations in Arizona earlier this year.
The F-16 is a highly manoeuvrable and versatile jet that can carry almost any bomb or missile in the US arsenal. It can perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, as well as reconnaissance and electronic warfare. It can also fly at speeds of up to Mach 2 and reach altitudes of over 50,000 feet.
The acquisition of F-16s would significantly boost Ukraine’s air defence capabilities and give it an edge over Russia’s fighters. Ukraine has been under constant attack from Russian drones and missiles since Russia invaded its territory in February 2022. Ukraine has received some air defence systems from its allies, such as NASAMS, Patriot and IRIS-t, but it still lacks modern combat aircraft that can engage with Russian jets.
The F-16s would also send a strong signal to Moscow that Ukraine is not alone and that its allies are ready to support it militarily. The US and its European partners have already imposed sanctions on Russia and provided Ukraine with weapons and training. The F-16s would be another demonstration of their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.