Two Ukrainian pilots are currently in the United States undergoing evaluation to determine how long it might take to train them to fly attack aircraft, including F-16 fighter jets, according to two congressional officials and a senior US official.
The Ukrainians’ skills are being tested on simulators at a US military base in Tucson, Arizona, the officials said, and more fellow pilots may soon join them.
US authorities have approved bringing up to 10 more Ukrainian pilots to the US for further testing starting this month, the officials said.
The arrival of the first two pilots marks the first time Ukrainians have traveled to the US to have their skills tested by US military trainers. Officials said the effort has two goals: to improve pilots’ skills and to assess how long a proper training program might take.
“The program is about evaluating their skills as pilots so that we can better advise them on how to use the capabilities that they have and have been given to them,” an administration official said.
Two administration officials stressed that it is not a training program and said that the Ukrainians will not fly any planes during their stay in the US.
These officials said the pilots will use a simulator that can imitate the flight of various types of aircraft, stressing that there are no updates on the US decision to provide F-16s to Ukraine beyond what the top official said. from the Pentagon to Congress last week. .
The official, Colin Kahl, told the House Armed Services Committee that the US has not made the decision to provide F-16s and neither have US allies and partners.
He also said that the United States «has not begun training on the F-16s» and that the F-16 delivery schedule is «essentially the same» as the training schedule, around 18 months.
«So there’s really no time saved by starting the training early in our assessment,» said Kahl, who is the assistant secretary of defense for policy. «And since we haven’t made the decision to provide F-16s and neither have our allies and partners, it doesn’t make sense to start training them on a system they may never get.»
Other US defense officials have said the training could be shortened from six to nine months, depending on the pilots’ prior training and knowledge of fighter jets.
Ukrainian officials have told the US and other allies that they have fewer than 20 pilots ready to travel to the US for F-16 training and another 30 who could be trained in the near future, according to American and Western officials.
When asked about evaluating two Ukrainian pilots, a defense official described it as a «familiarization event.»
“It is a routine activity as part of our military-to-military dialogue with Ukraine,” the official said.
“The ‘familiarization event’ is essentially a discussion between Air Force personnel and an observation of how the US Air Force operates. This event allows us to better help Ukrainian pilots become more effective pilots and mentor them better about how to develop their own capabilities.”
The defense official added that there are no immediate plans to increase the number of pilots beyond the two currently in Tucson, but said that «we are not closing the door on future opportunities.»
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked the US for F-16s, but President Joe Biden has resisted the requests thus far. In an interview with ABC News last month, Biden said Ukraine doesn’t need F-16s right now, adding that’s based on advice from the US military.
«I’m ruling it out for now,» he said when asked if he would ever send F-16s to Ukraine.