Ukrainian pilots are currently learning English as part of their training to eventually fly F-16 Fighting Falcons, said Air Force Gen. Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe/Africa.
Learning how to fly F-16s takes a long time, so the earliest that Ukraine would be able to use the advanced fighter aircraft would be next year, Hecker told reporters on Friday.
“I think you all know that training has begun with some Ukrainian pilots,” Hecker said. “It’s really their young pilots that barely have any hours at all, so they’re not currently fighting in the war and that kind of stuff. But they are getting language training in the UK [United Kingdom], and then they’re going to get a little bit more training on propellers and then go down to France and fly in the Alpha Jet a little bit. That all is going to take time, and that’s probably not going to happen before the end of the year. So that takes a while to make that happen. That’s why it’s going to be at least until next year until you see F-16s in Ukraine.”
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He did not specify how many Ukrainian pilots are currently in the F-16 training pipeline.
Hecker spoke at a Defense Writers Group event, which is based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
His comments came one day after Politico first reported that President Joe Biden has formally approved transferring some F-16s from Denmark and the Netherlands to Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have long pleaded with Western countries to provide them with F-16s and other advanced aircraft. Biden was initially opposed to the idea, telling ABC’s David Muir in February that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “doesn’t need F-16s now.”
But without air superiority, Ukraine’s counter-offensive against heavily fortified Russian positions has made halting progress and Ukrainian casualties have been high. Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, has criticized people who claim Ukraine doesn’t need F-16s, telling the Washington Post in July that no Western military would conduct large-scale operations without such aircraft.
While F-16s are built for the weapons systems that the United States and its allies are providing to Ukraine, Hecker said he does not expect that the Fighting Falcons will be a game changer for the Ukrainians. He noted the Ukrainians already have MiG-29s, which are “pretty capable aircraft.”
“Now, if I went to war, would I rather be in a MiG-29 or an F-16? I’d rather be an F-16,” Hecker said. “What the F-16 will give them is – it’s going to be more interoperable with the current weapons that we’re giving them now. So, right now, weapons that we are giving them have to be adapted to go on a MiG-29 or to go on a Su-27 or something like that. The F-16, it’s already interoperable with, so that will help out and give them an added capability, but it’s not going to be the silver bullet, that all of the sudden they are going to start taking down SA-21s [NATO’s reporting name for Russian S-400 air defense systems] because they have an F-16.”
One of the weapons the F-16s can carry is the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, which has a range of more than 20 miles. But Hecker said that Russian aircraft would be able to fly out of range of AMRAAMs, just as they have learned to stay at a safe distance from other Western weapons systems provided to Ukraine.
Hecker also cautioned that it will be several years before the Ukrainians can have more than one operational F-16 squadron.
“To get proficient in the F-16, that’s not going to happen overnight,” Hecker said. “You can get proficient on some weapons systems fairly quickly, but for ones like F-16s, that takes a while to build a couple squadrons of F-16s and to get their readiness high enough and their proficiency high enough. I mean, you’re talking – this could be four or five years down the road. I think in the short-term, it will help a little bit, but it’s not the silver bullet.”
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