US Air Force commander says it will take four or five years for Ukrainian pilots to be proficient flying the F-16
General James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces-Africa said Ukraine won’t get a basic F-16 capability until at least 2024, and developing proficiency with that aircraft “could be four or five years down the road,” Friday, following reports that the White House has green lighted sending F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to Kiev.
The Biden administration has agreed for Denmark and the Netherlands to send their old F-16s to Ukraine and train the pilots in return for fast track approval of the latest F-35 Lightning II.
“It’s going to [take] at least until next year until you see F-16s in Ukraine,” Hecker said at a virtual meeting of the Defense Writers Group speaking from his headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Hecker downplayed the significance the F-16s may have in helping Ukraine combat Russia’s invasion, saying the capability won’t be a “silver bullet” but will simply ease Ukraine’s use of air-to-ground weapons already being provided.
His comments echo previous remarks from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, who have said F-16s won’t be a “game-changer”or “magic weapon,” respectively.
“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,” Hecker said. “Right now, weapons that we’re giving them have to be adapted to go on the MiG-29 or go on the Su-27, or something like that.”
The U.S. has provided Ukraine with weapons including the AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile, which has been seen flying on Ukrainian MiG-29s, which Hecker called “a pretty capable aircraft.” However, Ukraine has asked Western nations for F-16s in part because the MiG-29 is a Russian design and parts are difficult to get to keep the fleet flying.
Hecker added that the cadre of pilots undergoing F-16 training are very junior and will need seasoning to become proficient with the fighter—they “barely have any hours at all. So they’re not currently fighting in the war,” Hecker said.
POLITICO reported that Ukraine has selected 32 pilots for F-16 training, but only eight are sufficiently proficient in English to begin training. The others are “getting language training in the U.K.,” Hecker said.
“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 for a little bit,“ the USAFE commander added. “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. So that’s why it’s going to be at least until next year until you see F-16s in Ukraine.”
“To get proficient in the F-16, that’s not going to happen overnight. You can get proficient on some weapons systems fairly quickly. But ones like F-16s, it 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.”In the short term, the F-16s “will help a little bit, but it’s not the silver bullet,” he repeated.
Ukrainian requests for the warplanes also come during its much-touted counteroffensive against Russia, which has so far failed to gain any ground, according to Moscow.
Ukrainian officials have attempted to explain the slow progress by pointing to Russia’s advantage in the air.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the West against providing Ukraine with F-16s, saying they “will burn” just like other Western-supplied weaponry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has cautioned that the planes could escalate hostilities as they can potentially carry nuclear weapons.