Ukraine Situation Report: Denmark, Netherlands To Lead F-16 Pilot Training Coalition

Denmark and the Netherlands will lead a European coalition to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighters, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday after a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

“During today’s meeting, several allies and partners also discussed plans for training Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including the F-16,” Austin said. “Planning and executing this training will be a significant undertaking, but the coordination of this contact group will help make that possible. But I especially wanted to thank Denmark and the Netherlands, which have decided to lead a European coalition in providing F-16 training for Ukrainian forces.”

Austin said that “in the coming weeks, my Dutch and Danish counterparts will work with the United States and other allies to develop a training framework. Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to contribute to train. We expect more countries to join this important initiative.”

You can get a sense of how long it would take to train a Ukrainian pilot on the F-16 in our deep dive here.

Asked why it has taken the U.S. so long to come around to supporting the concept of providing Ukraine with Western fighter jets and training for its pilots – something the Biden administration only agreed to last week – Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley told reporters that cost was a huge factor.

The Ukrainians have been provided “nine brigades of combat capability platforms and trained troops,” said Austin. ”That’s as big as many of the Western nations have in our land forces.”

That would not have been possible, Milley said, had funds first been invested in F-16s.

Milley added that Ukraine had much greater needs than F-16s, like ground-based air defenses as the best and quickest way to deny Russia air superiority over Ukraine. The U.S. and allies have provided a number of ground-based air defense systems, including Patriots, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles Systems (NASAMS), IRIS-TSAMP/TCrotaleGepard and others.

Just 10 F-16s would cost $2 billion in procurement and sustainment, he said.  

“The Russians have thousands of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters,” said Milley. “So, if you’re going to contest Russia in the air, you’re going to need a substantial amount of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. If you look at the cost curve and do the analysis, the smartest thing to have done is exactly what we did do, which is provide a significant amount of integrated air defense to cover the battlespace and deny the Russians the airspace. And that is exactly what happened.”

While no “magic weapon,” because there are no such things, F-16s have a role for Ukraine in the future, said Milley.

But it is “going to take a considerable length of time to build up an air force that’s the size and scope and scale that’ll be necessary.”

The U.K. also plans to train Ukrainian pilots as well.

“Approximately 20 Ukrainian pilots will be entering initial training, a British government spokesperson said,” according to Foreign Policy. “This will be ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots who will then be ready for more specific F-16 (or other) training,” the spokesperson said. 

There wasn’t much talk during the press conference about providing Ukraine with F-16s, which a number of U.S. allies are considering. But Austin did mention that donations of those jets are likely to come.

“The proficiency of Ukrainian forces and operating [previously donated weapons] systems as fast as they did is testament to their skill and adaptability under pressure,” Austin said. “It’s another example of the Ukrainians leveraging the tools provided by the international coalition into the tangible success on the battlefield from anti-tank weapons like Javelins at the beginning of this fight all the way to Patriots today and we’ll soon see the same with F-16.”

You can read more about where those F-16s might come from in our deep dive here.

Before we head into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

With images emerging on social media purporting to show U.S.-supplied vehicles operating during Monday’s incursion into Russia, Milley told reporters during Thursday’s press conference that he cannot confirm nor deny that, and has tasked staff to look into it.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Freedom For Russia Legion said the vehicles used were captured from the Russians, and they captured them from Ukrainians.

But regardless of what his staff determines, Milley said Thursday that Ukraine is not allowed to use U.S.-supplied equipment in Russia.

“The rules that we have established with Ukrainians is not to use U.S.-supplied equipment to attack into the geographic space of Russia,” said Milley. “Look, they are a country at war. There is an existential threat. They’re fighting for their survival. I can’t say with definitive accuracy right this minute whether that’s U.S.-supplied equipment or not, what was the nature of the attack or who did what to whom. I can’t say that definitively. But I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia.”

The reason, Milley said, is “because this is a Ukrainian war. It is not a war between the United States and Russia. It’s not a war between NATO and Russia, it is a war between Ukraine and Russia and we are supporting and supplying training and advising and assisting. But it is not a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.”

Speaking of that incursion, the Russia Volunteer Corps (RDK), one of the two self-proclaimed anti-Putin Russian partisan groups that staged the raid along with the Freedom For Russia Legion, claimed to be back inside Russia Thursday.

RDK released a video it says was taken Thursday in front of a post office in Russia.

“Of course, this time no one needs to prove that we filmed our video not in the Kyiv region, but in the Motherland,” the RDK fighters say. “Nevertheless, we decided to make such videos our good tradition! Glory to RDK!”

On the battlefield, Donbas remains the “epicenter of hostilities,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Thursday on her Telegram channel.

“There, the enemy is making an offensive in several directions – Avdiivskyi, Marinskyi, Lymanskyi, Kupyanskyi and Bakhmutskyi,” she wrote. “On Avdiivskyi and Mar’inskyi – enemy attacks were repulsed. The offensive actions of the enemy are unsuccessful.”

In Lymansky, “the enemy took a break and did not carry out offensive actions,” said Maliar. “Battles are currently ongoing on Kupyanskyi. The enemy attacks, tries to capture a bridgehead for further advance, suffers losses.”

Meanwhile, in the Bakhmut area, “the enemy is trying to stop our advance on the flanks with artillery fire. Now the enemy is pulling up additional units to the flanks for reinforcement.”

In the suburbs of Bakhmut, “the enemy replaced Wagner’s units with army regular units. At the moment, the Wagnerites remain in the same city of Bakhmut. Our troops control the outskirts of the city in the southwestern part in the ‘Airplane’ area.”

You can see how fierce the urban fighting in Bakhmut has been in this video below.

As part of his efforts to leave Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, prepared caskets of foreign troops fighting in that city on behalf of Ukraine.

There is also video of his troops leaving Bakhmut.

But as a parting gift, he promised to leave two of his soldiers behind, though it is unclear if he is serious, or trolling the Kremlin.

Images are emerging on social media claiming to show a Ukrainian strike on the Russian-held port city of Berdyansk in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

“Berdyans report the sounds of detonation!” according to the Telegram channel of Berdyansk Today, “an independent media resource created to cover the life of Berdyansk.”

“Ambulances also rushed by! ” Berdyansk Today reported. “There were also explosions near the village of Osypenko. At least the locals heard very loud noises and shaking houses! There were several previous arrivals! The loudest was in the districts: AKZ (territory of Azovkabel), Port, Azmol (plant territory).”

It’s unclear what exactly was hit with what. We will update this story with verifiable information when it becomes available.

Russia and its client state of Belarus agreed today on a plan to store Russian tactical nuclear weapons in that nation on Ukraine’s northern border.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin “put their signatures on documents outlining the process for storing Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in a special facility at the Republic of Belarus,” Russia’s Defense Ministry (MoD) announced today on its Telegram channel.

“Russia is not transferring nuclear weapons to the Republic of Belarus. Control over them and the decision on their use remains with the Russian side,” Shoigu stated when signing the documents.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin sign an agreement to place Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. (Russian MoD photo)

“Shoigu stressed that the actions taken by Belarus and Russia comply with all relevant international legal responsibilities,'” according to the MoD.

Shoigu claimed “the activities of NATO’s joint nuclear missions” pushes Belarus and Russia to take proper retaliatory action.

“In the circumstances of an extremely sharp escalation of threats and activity of NATO joint nuclear missions, we are compelled to take retaliatory measures in the military-nuclear sphere,” said Shoigu. “The deployment of Russian Federation non-strategic nuclear weapons on the territory of the Republic of Belarus has been planned in accordance with the decision of Supreme Commanders-in-Chief of the Russian Federation.”

Shoigu emphasized that Belarus has already received the Iskander-M tactical missile system, which can employ missiles in both conventional and nuclear warheads.

“Some Belarusian aircraft have been upgraded for potential nuclear weapon employment. Military personnel have received the appropriate training,” he added.

That agreement lives up to a promise Russian President Vladimir Putin made in March.

“We have handed over to Belarus our well-known and very effective Iskander system that can carry [nuclear weapons],” Putin said at the time. “On April 3, we will start training the crew and on July 1 we will complete the construction of a special storage for tactical nuclear weapons on the Belarusian territory.”

The Ukrainian National Guard said one of its soldiers, known as the “Zaporizhzhia Avenger” downed his seventh Russian Su-25 Frogfoot attack jet today with a man-portable air defense system (MANPAD).

The Frogfoot was one of two Ukraine claimed it downed over Zaparizhzhia Oblast today, the Ukrainian National Guard reported on its Facebook page.

“On May 25, the occupation troops of the Russian Federation tried to affect the positions of the Ukrainian Defense Forces with the use of a pair of Su-25s,” the Ukrainian National Guard reported. “As a result of the combat, the first Su-25 aircraft was completely destroyed, its pilot managed to catapult over the temporarily occupied territory. The second plane was [hit] by the famous ‘Zaporizhzhia Avenger.’ After being shot, the enemy Su-25 was seriously damaged and forced to enter an emergency landing” in Melitopol.

“At the end of the runway, Melitopol residents observed a black pillar of smoke. Before that, there were deafening explosions.”

How much of the “Zaporizhzhia Avenger” story is real and how much is “Ghost of Kyiv” level myth mixed with a dose of propaganda is unclear at this point. We’ve reached out to the Ukrainian national guard to see if we can interview him, if he exists, and will update this story if and when that happens.

Spanish troops offered a teary sendoff to the Ukrainian troops they were training, alternately pumping fists into the air, wiping their eyes, and saluting as their trainees departed.

There was a prisoner exchange today near Bakhmut, with 106 Ukrainians being returned.

You can watch British-donated WS-62 Sea King helicopters in service with the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Those helicopters made their official debut in Ukraine in January — even sporting patriotic high-visibility Ukrainian markings — less than two months after London announced they would be donated to Kyiv’s cause.

Ukrainian Gen. Valeri Zaluzhny, commander and chief of the Armed Forces, had not been seen in public for a while, creating speculation on Russian Telegram channels that he may have been injured in battle.

But he had been in recent contact with Milley and today he surfaced publicly in a video that acknowledged that there have been conspiracy theories swirling around him.

And finally, move over trench beaver wherever you are, there’s a new critter winning the hearts and minds of Ukrainian troops.

That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when there’s more news to report about Ukraine.

Contact the author: