F-16s Will Be Focus Of Ukrainian Pilot Training In U.K.

More details have emerged of the kind of fighter pilot training being provided to Ukraine by the United Kingdom, which we now know is specifically geared toward helping those aviators convert onto the F-16. This should help fulfill Kyiv’s longstanding ambition of obtaining the fourth-generation Western-made fighter jets, while the leaders of Ukraine and the United Kingdom have also discussed a possible “coalition of jets” for the Ukrainian Air Force, as a means of making that more achievable.

The U.K. Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak (right), and the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, walk in the garden at Chequers on May 15, 2023. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The announcements came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak today at the British leader’s country residence at Chequers in England.

Regarding the “coalition of jets,” Zelensky said: “I see that in the closest time, you will hear some, I think, very important decisions but we have to work a little bit more on it,” Zelensky added, after his meeting with Sunak.

In a statement, meanwhile, the U.K. government said that it would begin a flying training program for Ukrainian student pilots in the coming weeks. “This summer we will commence an elementary flying phase for cohorts of Ukrainian pilots to learn basic training,” the statement read. “This will adapt the program used by U.K. pilots to provide Ukrainians with piloting skills they can apply to different kinds of aircraft. This training goes hand in hand with UK efforts to work with other countries on providing F-16 jets — Ukraine’s fighter jets of choice.”

Such training could also be applicable to other 4th generation Western fighters as well, and there are other attractive possibilities alongside F-16s. Although, clearly the F-16 is now the stated end-game solution for reequipping Ukraine’s tactical fighter fleet, at least at this time.

Aside from the training, the U.K. government today also confirmed it was going to provide Ukraine with “hundreds of air defense missiles” (of an undisclosed type, but possibly AIM-120 AMRAAMs from its own stocks, for use in the NASAMS). Also being provided are “hundreds of new long-range attack drones with a range of over 200km [124 miles].” This might refer to new types of drones being developed in the United Kingdom specifically for Ukraine, as we have discussed before.

“This equipment will support Ukraine over the coming months in their anticipated military surge to counter Russian forces,” the U.K. government’s statement continues. “During their meeting today, the Prime Minister will discuss with President Zelenskyy what support Ukraine needs from the international community, both in terms of immediate military equipment and long-term defenses.”

Significantly, the statement appears to be the first time that a senior U.K. official has spoken specifically of the aspiration to secure F-16s for Ukraine, although the idea of different countries working together to provide “a coalition of jets” is not new and has been raised in the past by officials in Poland and the Netherlands, for example. Other countries have also raised the possibility of delivering to Ukraine their surplus F-16s in the future, as in the case of Denmark.

Denmark F-16
A Royal Danish Air Force F-16 fighter jet. Photo by Horacio Villalobos — Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images Photo by Horacio Villalobos – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The United Kingdom has already said that it’s not in a position to provide Ukraine with fighter jets from its own stocks. The War Zone has looked in detail in the past at how the U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoons that would be the most likely candidates for such a transfer are also hardly the best fit for the Ukrainian Air Force.

Today, Sunak’s spokesperson was again asked if the United Kingdom would transfer fighter jets to Ukraine from its own stocks. “There are no plans to do that,” the spokesperson said. “The Ukrainians made the decision to train their pilots on F-16s and you will know the RAF don’t use those.”

Sunak himself also warned that obtaining F-16s for Ukraine is “not a straightforward thing.” According to a report from PA, Sunak said:

“We are going to be a key part of the coalition of countries that provides that support to Volodymyr and Ukraine. It is not a straightforward thing as Volodymyr and I have been discussing to build up that fighter combat aircraft capability. It’s not just the provision of planes, it is also the training of pilots and all the logistics that go alongside that, and the U.K. can play a big part in that. One thing we will be doing starting actually relatively soon is training of Ukrainian pilots and that’s something we’ve discussed today and we’re ready to implement those plans in relatively short order.”

During Zelensky’s previous visit to the United Kingdom in February — his first since Russia’s full-scale invasion began — the U.K. government confirmed it would begin to train Ukrainian fighter pilots, as part of its extensive military aid to the country.

The statement from the U.K. government in February noted that the training “will ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future. As part of that long-term capability investment, the U.K. will work with Ukraine and international allies to coordinate collective support to meet Ukraine’s defensive needs.”

While the U.K. said it would look into providing undisclosed new fighter jets for Ukraine back in February, the F-16 was, at that time, not mentioned by name. Now that we know that the Ukrainian pilots involved will be receiving “basic” training, the lack of F-16s becomes even less of an issue.

One of the RAF’s small fleet of Texan T1 turboprop trainers. Crown Copyright

For U.K. fighter pilots, flying training begins with the elementary course that takes about four months to complete, with flying lessons in the Grob Prefect T1, as well as academic work, and general service training. If the student passes a final handling test, they will then be streamed into the fast-jet, rotary wing, or multi-engine pathway.

For prospective fast-jet pilots, the next stage involves the Texan T1 turboprop trainer at RAF Valley in Wales, after which successful candidates are awarded their ‘wings’. The next step is the Hawk T2 jet trainer, also at Valley, and, after successful completion of the tactical weapons phase, fighter pilots then join an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), where they learn to fly their frontline aircraft type (Typhoon or F-35B).

RAF T2 Hawks
U.K. Royal Air Force Hawk T2s. Crown Copyright Crown Copyright

No details were provided of exactly what the Ukrainian training package will consist of, although we know it will start with the elementary flying phase, under an adapted program, and that the end result will give the students piloting skills applicable to 4th generation fighters, in particular the F-16. There is also the potential of using additional training capacity, such as the University Air Squadrons, which fly Grob Tutor T1s to provide initial flying experience for university graduates before they sign up for a military career.

Ironically, however, the U.K.’s fast-jet training syllabus is increasingly struggling to train fighter pilots to meet the country’s own needs. Major problems with aircraft availability and throughput have left the fast-jet pipeline in a precarious state. Last September, it was reported that around 280 personnel were in limbo as they waited to move from one U.K. Military Flying Training System (MFTS) course to the next.

In practice, the process of training a fast-jet pilot actually takes closer to around five years, including about three and a half years of actual flying training. With the scarcity of available slots, it’s possible that the process can take even longer, with some fighter pilots requiring a full seven years before getting to the front line. RAF officials have said they expect the average to come down to just over four years before the end of next year.

Meanwhile, today it was announced that British pilots would start training at the International Flight Training School (IFTS) in Sardinia, Italy, a collaboration between defense contractor Leonardo and the Italian Air Force. Other British fast-jet pilots already train in the United States, within the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training, or ENJJPT, program.

It was during his previous visit to the United Kingdom that Zelensky also brought up the plan for a “coalition of planes” to help turn the tide of the war against Russia. After an address to the U.K. parliament, the Ukrainian president presented the speaker of the House of Commons with a Ukrainian Air Force fighter pilot’s helmet adorned with a message that reads: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”

The plan for the United Kingdom to provide F-16-specific training to Ukraine is also something that The War Zone has discussed in the past.

Of course, with repeated demands for F-16s made by Ukrainian officials and fighter pilots alike, the fact that the U.K. pilot training effort will be geared toward getting Ukrainians into Viper cockpits is not a surprise. In the past, we have explained how the F-16 swiftly became a frontrunner for Ukraine, thanks to its relative availability, ease of support and sprawling logistical infrastructure, the capacity to train its pilots to fly it, and its highly adaptable multirole capability. You can read more about these aspects — and what it would take to train Ukrainian pilots to fly it — here.

While the United States could train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s in a matter of months, the United Kingdom is offering a different ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach, starting with basic training, but geared toward the F-16. Jamie Hunter Jamie Hunter

While there have been some tentative Viper offers from existing operators, the U.S. government has so far not approved any transfers of F-16s and President Joe Biden issued a firm “no” when questioned on the topic in January.

The U.S. stance may well change, however, and the British announcement today suggests that there is momentum building behind getting F-16s to Ukraine, one way or another.

When Ukraine might finally get its hand on F-16s remains a matter of speculation. However, the fact that the United Kingdom is poised to start elementary/basic training of Ukrainian pilots, rather than converting pre-qualified pilots of jets like the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighter suggests that this initiative, at least, is part of a longer game.

Ukrainian Air Force pilots who already fly frontline jets could, potentially, be converted onto the F-16 reasonably rapidly, even in the United Kingdom, without the need for actual live flying, instead relying on simulators.

But if those pilots were to return to Ukraine without any F-16s to fly, those newly learned skills would start to atrophy. In that sense, it’s more logical to start with pilot cadets who can be taught to fly Western types in a longer-duration ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach.

For all those advocating that the process of Ukraine introducing F-16s starts sooner rather than later — something that The War Zone argued more than a year ago — the announcement from the United Kingdom is good news. Securing F-16s is one thing, but they are useless without Ukrainian pilots able to fly them. And with Su-27s and a topped-up MiG-29 fleet still very much active, it’s also may be prudent to keep pilots for these types in the battle as long as is practical, diverting these seasoned aviators to Western-type training only when a highly tailored syllabus and final fighter aircraft is available. Meanwhile, putting younger cadets through the full process of flight training, starting at the elementary level, for when the Vipers finally arrive makes good sense.

MIG-29 Ukraine
A former Slovakian Air Force MiG-29 prepares to depart the country on its delivery flight to Ukraine. Slovakian MoD screencap Slovakian MoD screencap

As it stands, the first cadre of Ukrainian pilots who could end up flying F-16s should begin training for this possibility in the United Kingdom this summer. Although the realities of getting F-16s to Ukraine remain challenging, kicking off the training is a big statement of intent and also the best way to have pilots ready to operate the jets once they do finally arrive.

If the U.K. training program does kickstart a more serious campaign to provide Kyiv with F-16s, a possibility that Zelensky has hinted strongly toward, then it wouldn’t be the first time that London has been at the forefront of helping Ukraine get high-end weaponry. The United Kingdom was at the front of the queue when it came to pledging to deliver modern Western main battle tanks to Ukraine, and its donation of Challenger 2s was soon followed up by Leopard 2s from multiple nations, as well as M1 Abrams from the United States.

The United Kingdom was also the first to provide Ukraine with a long-range cruise missile, in the shape of the air-launched Storm Shadow. After much conjecture, it was confirmed last week that these conventionally armed missiles were being supplied to Ukraine and evidence has since emerged of their likely use in combat.

Other equipment previously ‘off-limits’, including HIMARS rocket artillery and Patriot air defense systems have also ultimately found their way to Ukraine.

When it comes to the more complex weapons that Ukraine has been campaigning for, the F-16 might just be the next on the list.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com