- The Netherlands has presented a plan to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighters.
- NATO is also in the process of scrounging up F-16s from its member states, a third of which fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
- The process was made possible after the Biden Administration gave its blessing to send the jets, which use American tech.
The Netherlands and Denmark will lead an effort to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets. Ukraine will likely receive donated F-16s from a number of NATO countries, particularly those in the process of switching to new F-35 Lightning II fighters. The process was finally greenlit by the U.S. government after more than a year of lobbying for modern fighter jets by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Netherlands, Breaking Defense reports, has generated a three-step training program to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 multi-role fighter jet. The program consists of conversion training, meant to migrate the pilots from Soviet to NATO-type aircraft, followed by language training and initial flight training, and then further training at a new training center in an “eastern NATO member” country. A recent Air Force analysis predicted it would take existing Ukrainian fighter pilots 4 to 6 months to learn to fly the F-16.
The training program steps suggest the Netherlands and Denmark, program assistant and fellow NATO F-16 operator, will train existing Ukrainian Air Force pilots. These pilots will have to re-learn how to fly with western aircraft, which have very different design philosophies than Soviet gear such as the MiG-29. These differences run the gamut from where buttons and switches are located to how procedures for air combat are wired into the plane’s flight controls, such as how a F-16 achieves radar lock on an aerial target and the procedures to fire a missile.
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The biggest obstacle for the pilots might be linguistic. The pilots will likely learn to speak English, one of the two lingua francas (the other is French) of NATO and the aviation world. Unfortunately, Ukraine is one of the least English-proficient countries in Europe, ranking 28 out of the 32 European countries.
A Pressing Need
Ukraine’s Air Force has taken severe losses in the last 16 months of war. Flight International’s 2022 World Air Forces directory tallied 43 Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jets before the war; the Oryx blog counts 19 as destroyed. Of the 26 Su-27 heavy fighters detected before the war, at least twelve have been shot down. Ukraine’s fighters are also typically at least 30 years old and have received few, if any, electronic upgrades. Ukraine has received donated MiG-29s and spare parts from Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries, but the number of aircraft still in operation is a closely guarded secret.
The F-16 fighter jet will be a marked improvement upon Ukraine’s remaining Su-27s and MiG-29s. The first tranche of F-16s will likely be sourced from the Netherlands. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, the Royal Netherlands Air Force has 34 F-16AM/BM Mid-Life Update (MLU) fighters ready for transfer. The F-16 AM/BM MLU is an earlier model F-16 that underwent an upgrade process that included a new AN/APG-66(V2) radar system, a new computer system, a modernized multifunction display and heads-up display, GPS, and a data modem compatible with the US/NATO Link 16 encrypted data sharing system.
The F-16 AM/BM MLU will be competitive with most Russian fighters in the region, with the exception of the newer Su-35 “Flanker-E”.
While air-to-air fighter combat was common in the early days of the war, the ground-based air defenses of both sides are now firmly entrenched, making flying near the front line risky. Ukrainian F-16s would likely use their F-16s to shoot down incoming Russian drones and cruise missiles. The AN/APG-66 radars are capable of detecting low-altitude targets at ranges of up to 51 miles, tracking up to 10 targets, and engaging six individual targets with AMRAAM radar-guided missiles. Another mission could be to launch HARM anti-radar missiles at Russian air defense radars, or drop JDAM GPS-guided bombs in support of troops on the front line, all while safely within Ukrainian airspace.
The delayed introduction of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has proven an unanticipated boon to Ukraine. The F-35A, years late, has air forces only now retiring their F-16 fleets—just in time for Ukraine to take the reins. The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and Poland are all replacing their F-16s with F-35s, an effort that will likely free up a couple hundred jets for transfer. Had the F-35 not been delayed, the 34 jets the Netherlands is ready to donate to Ukraine might well have been sold to overseas buyers already.
F-16 fighters will be a huge upgrade for Ukraine’s air force. The Netherlands wants to start training this summer, so the planes should be ready by winter, just when Russia will probably attempt to attack Ukraine’s energy grid again. F-16s aren’t a wonder weapon that will win the war, but they could help friendly troops fighting on the front lines, decimate Russia’s air defense network, and prevent civilians from freezing in the winter—and that’s a goal worth everyone’s time.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.