Positive momentum is building in the United States for transferring F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine after weeks of lobbying by Kyiv. Although a decision is elusive, pilots from Ukraine are now undergoing a training assessment in the US.
Western media, citing two congressional officials and a senior US official, reported that two Ukrainian pilots are currently in the US evaluating how long it may take to train them to fly the attack aircraft, including the F-16 fighter jets.
The officials stated that more pilots might soon join them as the abilities of Ukrainian pilots are being assessed on simulators at the Air National Guard base in Tucson, Arizona. Up to 10 other Ukrainian pilots may travel to the United States for additional evaluation as early as this month.
The announcement comes almost a month after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak committed to training Ukrainian combat jet pilots on Royal Air Force fighter jets. Although details on which aircraft will be used were not disclosed, military experts said it would most likely be the Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 1 jet.
In addition, the French defense minister Sebastien Lecornu informed that the country was in talks with Ukraine on the issue of training fighter pilots and the possibility of sending fighter jets, possibly the Mirage 2000C, to Kyiv.
As for the Ukrainian pilots undergoing assessment in the US, unknown officials told the media that the program was intended to start late last year but was postponed for certain unknown reasons. The pilots have already spent one week at the base and will remain there for at least another week.
However, the officials also clarified that it was not a training program for Ukrainian pilots. Two administration officials emphasized that the Ukrainian pilots undergoing assessment at the simulator wouldn’t be piloting any planes while in the United States.
The development is significant as this is the first time the US military assesses Ukrainian pilots. EurAsian Times reported in July last year that the United States House of Representatives approved $100 million for training Ukrainian pilots to fly American fighter jets as part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
However, there has been no change in position by the Pentagon on transferring F-16s to Ukraine. Last week, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee that neither the US nor its partners had decided to provide F-16s to Kyiv.
Additionally, he claimed that the US had “not begun training on F-16s” and that the delivery schedule for F-16s was “basically the same” as the training schedule, which was 18 months.
With its intense lobbying for western fighter jets, Ukraine has been making preparations to begin training on these jets as soon as a decision is taken by its allies. For instance, in late October, the Ukrainian Air Force chose a cadre of pilots who would eventually be trained to fly Western combat jets.
Ukraine’s Intensifying Pitch For F-16 Fighter Jets
After securing the commitment for Abrams tanks from the US, Ukraine has intensified its calls for western fighter jets, including the F-16s from the US and other NATO allies that operate the aircraft.
However, despite US politicians endorsing a transfer, the Pentagon has remained non-committal.
In an interview last month, Biden asserted that Ukraine did not now require F-16s, basing that assertion on guidance from the American military. Also, Biden revealed to reporters last week that he had a conversation with Zelenskyy about F-16s during his visit to Kyiv on February 2.
“I’m ruling it out for now,” Biden said when asked if he would ever send F-16s to Ukraine.
Several fighter jets, including the Swedish Saab JAS-39, the British Eurofighter Typhoon, German Tornado-S, French Mirage-2000, Rafales, and the American F-16s have been sought by Ukraine in its bid to challenge the Russian Air Force with advanced western fighter jets.
Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lobbied hard for combat jets while visiting London, Paris, and Brussels on his second overseas tour since Russia invaded his country.
Last month, a famous Ukrainian fighter pilot who goes by the call sign ‘Juice’ said the American-built F-16 would be the best option for making the Ukrainian air force more lethal to engage Russian targets, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.
Earlier, Poland hinted that it would be willing to transfer some F-16 fighter jets from its fleet. However, it added a caveat that any such transfer should be part of a larger coordinated effort with other NATO allies. Ukraine has also been lobbying with Dutch officials for their F-16 fighters.
Even within the United States, a group of US military officials has been “quietly pushing” the Department of Defense to sign off on an F-16 package for Ukraine, according to reports earlier published in the media.
Against that backdrop, an assessment of Ukrainian pilots could be a positive sign for Ukraine, which has consistently maintained that it needs advanced fighter jets to face off against an enemy with a much superior air force.
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