Ukraine F-16 update as first pilots complete training

The first round of Ukrainian pilots have completed F-16 fighter jet training at a military base in Arizona, advancing Kyiv one step closer to using the modern aircraft in its war against Russia.

Air National Guard spokesperson Erin Hannigan told Politico’s Lara Seligman that the pilots had been training at the 162nd Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard in Tucson. They are now headed to Europe for additional training.

Hannigan did not provide an exact number of how many pilots graduated “out of abundance of caution for their safety.” Newsweek reached out to the Air National Guard via email late Friday night for additional comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly asked for F-16s to boost Kyiv’s air defense capabilities before a coalition of Western allies—including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium—agreed to provide Ukraine with the American-made aircraft. Training programs to get Kyiv’s pilots comfortable manning the jets have been conducted in partnership between France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Romania and the U.S.

A Portuguese Air Force F-16 fighter jet participates in a NATO exercise on July 4, 2023. The first round of Ukrainian pilots have completed their F-16 training at a U.S. military base in Arizona.

JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian Air Force Major Illia Yevlash said earlier this month that an “unspecified number” of Kyiv’s pilots had completed preparations to fly the F-16s. Yevlash, the Air Force Command’s Public Relations Service officer, told Ukrainian news outlets that the “process” of training “is constantly continuing at various levels and we already have pilots who are directly completing their training on the F-16, and as soon as it becomes possible, the F-16 will arrive in Ukraine.”

The British Defense Ministry in March said that 10 Ukrainian pilots had graduated from a British military flight school and were moving on to complete advance flight training with the French air force. After that training was complete, the pilots would begin learning how to fly the F-16s.

It is still unclear when the first round of F-16s will arrive in Ukraine. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said alongside Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder during a press conference last month that their country’s promised jets would be delivered to Kyiv by year’s end. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas previously estimated that the first batch of F-16s would arrive in Ukraine sometime in June.

Military experts have said that the F-16s will provide a major upgrade to the Ukrainian Air Force, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly dismissed notions that the jets will have a major impact on the course of the war.

Footage shared to social media earlier this week appeared to show that Russia had upgraded its Soviet-era Su-30 fighter jets with brand-new missiles, and Russian sources teased that the Kremlin’s pilots “showed that they are quite ready for the arrival of NATO aircraft and will meet them properly.”