An F-16 assigned to the 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., soars over the skies during training.

An F-16 assigned to the 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., soars over the skies during training. (Hampton Stramler/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will bring several Ukrainian pilots to the United States to teach them to fly F-16 fighter jets to help defend their country against invading Russian forces, military officials announced Thursday.

Ukrainian pilots will first receive English-language training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas before they move to Arizona for flight training, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. The language training is expected to begin in September and the F-16 training possibly in October, he said.

Ukraine has long requested F-16s to counter sophisticated military equipment and aircraft used by Russian forces in the war, which has been going for 18 months. The Netherlands and Denmark have already pledged F-16s to Ukraine after its pilots complete the necessary training.

The Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., which trains U.S. pilots to fly F-16s, will train the Ukrainian aviators, the Pentagon said.

“We anticipate [the training] will include several pilots and maintainers,” Ryder said. “The training … will complement the F-16 training that’s already underway in Europe.”

The Pentagon said the number of F-16s that Ukraine receives will be influenced greatly by the success of the pilot training.

“There is going to be some type of ground training involved … centrifuge training to learn how to cope with g-forces. There will be additional training on air-combat maneuvering, tactical intercepts, close-air support, suppression of enemy air defenses – all of that leading up to mission qualification training, which allows [the] instructors to certify that [the pilots] are combat-ready,” Ryder said. “This is a high-performance aircraft.”

The F-16 Fighting Falcon entered U.S. military service in the late 1970s and is flown mostly by the Air Force. More than 4,000 F-16 jets have been built in the last 45 years, and some have been sold to foreign allies such as South Korea, Israel, Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands.

President Joe Biden’s administration has sent tens of billions of dollars in military equipment to Ukraine, though it has yet to commit to sending F-16s. Administration officials have said Ukraine already has a fleet of Russian-made, Soviet-era fighters with which they are more familiar. With Russia flying fourth- and fifth-generation fighters over the skies of Ukraine, however, Ukraine and Western leaders expect the F-16s will help Ukraine’s military drive Russian forces out of the country in the long term.

“We are talking months, not weeks, obviously,” Ryder said. “This is about the long-term support to Ukraine. This is not about the counteroffensive they are conducting right now.”

The F-16 training won’t be the first time Ukrainian troops have traveled to the United States to learn how to operate American weapons. In January, a group of Ukrainian troops arrived at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to train on the Patriot missile-defense system.

Ryder also said the 162nd Wing has trained pilots to fly the F-16 from as many as 25 nations.

Though Denmark and the Netherlands agreed to send dozens of F-16s to Ukraine, the United States must approve the move since it manufactured the jets and sold them to those countries. Reuters reported last week that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already told both countries the fighter jets can be sent to Ukraine as soon as pilot training is completed. Earlier Thursday, which was Ukrainian Independence Day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Norway has also committed to sending several F-16s.

“The best news for our Independence Day,” Zelenskyy wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “In this fight, everyone counts. Because the fight is for something that is important to everyone. An independent Ukraine.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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