USAF: Three Months Enough For Some Ukrainian Pilots To Learn F-16

 A U.S National Guard F-16 trains in Ukraine in 2011.

Credit: U.S. Air Force

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Experienced Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly the multirole missions of the Lockheed Martin F-16—including using heat-seeking and radar-guided air-to-air missiles—in as little as three months, U.S. Air Force leaders say as the training pipeline is preparing to begin. 

The U.S.-hosted share of F-16 training is standing up at Morris Air National Guard Base, Arizona, in addition to other efforts hosted by nations in Europe.

Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, told reporters Sept. 12 at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air Space & Cyber Conference here that he has directed the wing commander to tailor training for the “particular threat” that trainees would need to fight. For Ukraine, this includes both air-to-ground and air-to-air fighting.

“We will train them to do the full, multirole spectrum,” Loh says.

The Air National Guard last year hosted Ukrainian pilots to assess their ability to learn the F-16, and Loh says this showed pilots could learn the F-16 in as little as three months or as long as nine months if they are not experienced. 

“For the ones currently experienced, flying day-to-day sorties over there, I think three months is absolutely realistic.”

Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said the F-16 will not simply give Ukraine air superiority, but “it’s a start.”

Hecker pointed to Poland as an example. In 2002, Poland selected the F-16 to replace its fleet of Soviet-era aircraft including MiG-29s and MiG-21s. The U.S. helped Poland train on the aircraft and adopt Western tactics. Hecker says the U.S. will take a similar approach with Ukraine. However, it will not be as quick because it is “tough to do that in the middle of war.”

Flying the F-16 means Ukraine will have an easier time using Western weapons that had to be creatively integrated on its existing fleet, such as AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions. 

Pilots will be able to quickly pick up the ability to take off and land with the F-16, and be able to do basic weapons employment. However, more intensive tactics and even a deep understanding of the aircraft’s hands-on throttle and stick would take longer. 

“Putting it all together is where things get really difficult,” he says.  

Western nations have pledged to donate about 50 F-16s to Ukraine. Loh says this will be enough to have a sizable force to make an impact. Loh, who was previously Colorado’s adjutant general, worked with Jordan through the State Partnership Program. Jordan’s air force has a similarly sized fleet of F-16s, which is enough to have a training unit and two operational squadrons.

Hosting Ukrainian pilots at Morris means other pilots set to start training may be displaced. Training Ukraine is a “priority of our nation,” so choices will need to be made to bump other pilots back in the pipeline, he says.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.