US unwilling to see Ukrainian pilots train on F-16 despite Europe’s readiness

Karolis Kavolelis /

While several leaders in Europe have expressed their eagerness to deliver F-16s fighters and train pilots from Ukraine in recent days, the United States is reportedly still reluctant to see this plan move forward. 

For months now, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his allies have lobbied to see Western fighter jets supplied to the Ukrainian Air Force to help deter Russia’s invasion.  

The United Kingdom and France, through their heads of state Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron, said they were ready to train fighter pilots of Ukraine for the operation of NATO-standard aircraft. On May 15, 2023, Macron stressed that training could commence immediately, involving other European countries prepared to participate. 

Following a meeting between Zelenskyy, Sunak and the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands announced plans to build an “international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, supporting with everything from training to procuring F16 jets.” 

Biden’s reluctance to deliver the F-16 to Ukraine

However, this determination is not shared on the other side of the Atlantic. One of the primary reasons behind Washington’s hesitation to send F-16s to Ukraine, according to a US official quoted by The New York Times, is the substantial cost associated with the provision of these aircraft.  

There are also concerns that the introduction of more advanced weaponry in the region could provoke Moscow to intensify its attacks. 

Finally, due to the critical nature of the aircraft, still widely in use within the US Air Force, advanced training of Ukrainian pilots to operate the F-16 would require an explicit approval from the US, or else it would be limited to “merely technical language and tactical lessons that pilots would be taught, without ever touching an F-16,” a Ukrainian official explained to The New York Times. 

The reluctance from US President Joe Biden and his administration is not new. Despite the United States House of Representatives earmarking $100 million to train Ukrainian pilots to fly US combat aircraft in July 2022, Biden reiterated as recently as February 2023 that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now”. 

“There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military, now, to provide F-16s,” Biden told ABC News. “We’re sending [Zelenskyy] what our seasoned military thinks he needs now. He needs tanks, he needs artillery, he needs air defense.” 

In an interview with AeroTime in October 2022, former US Ambassador to NATO and former US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker explained that part of the administration was hoping to delay the delivery until after the war. 

“My perception is that we have used the duration of training as an excuse,” Volker said. “The expectation in Washington is that the war will be over before any F-16 are transferred to Ukraine, and they’re able to integrate them into their air force.” 

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