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Three Ukrainian pilots have graduated from F-16 training with the Arizona National Guard and a fourth is expected to graduate shortly, a U.S. official told Task & Purpose. The trio are the first Ukranians to be trained to fly and fight in the U.S. fighter.

Eight Ukrainian pilots remain in the F-16 training pipeline with the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing in Tucson, the U.S. official said. The wing is a longtime training hub for F-16s, with both a traditional pilot training program for American flyers qualifying on the jet and the Air Force’s only schoolhouse dedicated to training pilots from 25 different countries on the advanced U.S. fighter.

“The mission of training proficient and resilient pilots is not a new for the 162d Wing,” said Col. Brant Putnam, the wing’s commander. “The recent graduation of Ukrainian pilots exemplifies the dedication of our instructor pilots, who make the 162d the premier Air Force F-16 training location for both US and foreign military. The Ukrainian student’s graduation marks they have met their training requirements and are ready to move on to the next phase set by their country.”

The new F-16 pilots should have no shortage of jets to fly when they return to Ukraine. Several countries have offered a total of roughly 60 F-16s to Ukraine. Politico first reported on May 23 that the first Ukrainian pilots had successfully completed F-16 training in Arizona and are now expected to undergo further training in Europe.

Due to operational security concerns, no photographs were taken or videos made during the Ukrainian pilots’ graduation ceremony, said Army Capt. Erin Hannigan, an Arizona National Guard spokeswoman.

Hannigan deferred questions to Ukraine about what type of training the pilots will go through next.

In October, the first Ukrainian pilots began their F-16 training in Arizona, and subsequent batches of pilots started to arrive in January, said Army Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman.

“While I cannot confirm specific details regarding the training schedules and locations of individual pilots, I can assure you that we continue to work closely with our Ukrainian partners to enhance their operational readiness and interoperability within NATO standards,” Dietz told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

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Denmark and the Netherlands are leading international efforts to train Ukrainian F-16 pilots with help from Belgium, Norway, and Romania. France is providing initial training for Ukrainian pilots even though it does not fly F-16s, and Britain is also involved with training Ukrainian pilots.

With a pre-invasion Air Force stocked only with Russian fighters, Ukraine has pleaded for western aircraft since after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of their country in February 2022. But it took more than a year before President Joe Biden approved sending Ukraine F-16s from Denmark and the Netherlands.

When the news broke in August that the first Ukrainian pilots would begin F-16 pilot training in Arizona , Ukraine appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict against Russia. Now, in part due to Congress’ six-month delay in approving new military assistance for Ukraine, the situation on the battlefield has changed in Russia’s favor.

An expert with the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London has estimated that Russia has committed 510,000 of its troops to the war with Ukraine, and Russia has been able to take ground in an offensive in Kharkiv.

Ukraine won’t be able to blunt Russia’s momentum with just three F-16 pilots, said retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who served as head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations from 2013 to 2016.

The Ukrainians need at least a squadron of F-16s and pilots to start to make a difference, Breedlove told Task & Purpose. A U.S. squadron generally has around 30 pilots with another five or six at the wing level who are attached to the unit, but American units are also bigger than their foreign counterparts.

“Typically, a squadron will be manned at about 1.3 to 1.6 the number of airplanes,” Breedlove explained. “So, if you have 10 airplanes, it would be 15 or 16 pilots.”

The first Ukrainian F-16 pilots who have graduated from their initial training in Arizona must now also train for specific missions, such as close air support, air defense, night precision attack, and suppressing enemy air defenses, Breedlove said. The U.S. military needs to advise the Ukrainians about what the F-16 pilots’ first missions should be.

“When we graduate a pilot from what we call a B-Course in the U.S., that means initial qualification in an aircraft,” Breedlove said. “When a pilot comes out of a B-Course, they have a basic qualification in all the missions that the airplane can do. But when they go to their wing, their first assigned unit, they are going to specialize in the wing’s mission because not all wings specialize in all missions.”

It typically takes American F-16 pilots about six months to complete a B-Course followed by up to four months of additional training to learn how to fly the missions that are tasked of their wing, after which they are described as ‘mission qualified,’ Breedlove said.

“Once they have a mission qualification, that means we’re ready to take them into combat in the missions that they’ve trained for,” Breedlove said.

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