US President Joe Biden (L) walks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of a working session on Ukraine during the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima on May 21, 2023.
SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The Biden administration on Thursday announced plans to begin F-16 pilot training for Ukrainian troops.
The offering is a marked shift from Biden’s original position of not providing F-16s or training.
In February, he ruled out providing F-16s; by May, he supported allies supplying jets.
The Biden administration, once vocally opposed to providing F-16 fighter jets and training to the Ukrainian war effort, has departed from earlier statements that the country didn’t need them and will now begin offering pilot training for Ukraine’s troops as early as October.
The training, which will be conducted at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tuscon, Arizona, is “in support of the international effort to develop and strengthen Ukraine’s long-term defenses,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a Thursday statement.
While the US has provided more than $135 billion worth of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since Russia began its full-scale invasion last year, F-16s have been a sticking point on the world stage for months.
Russia’s superior air power has been challenging for Ukrainian troops to overcome. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly requested that Western allies supply next-generation aircraft to aid on the front lines.
In a February interview with ABC News, President Joe Biden sounded resolute as he maintained that the Ukrainian war effort didn’t need F-16s at the time, saying he was “ruling it out for now” despite pleas from the country’s leader that the fighter jets could change the course of battle.
By May, Biden softened his stance after international pressure mounted during the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima. After being given “flat assurance” that Zelenskyy would not use the advanced aircraft for attacks on Russian territory, Biden allowed US-made F-16s from the Netherlands and Denmark to be sent to Ukraine.
According to Ryder’s statement, preparations are underway to offer training on US soil for an as-yet-undetermined number of pilots. He said basic training for a new F-16 pilot typically takes eight months, but “individual pilots’ skill level” will determine how long the Ukrainian troops will be trained.
Representatives for the White House and Ukraine Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
The move by the US comes after critical delays reported in the Denmark and Netherlands militaries, which had initially volunteered to lead the training, that would have prevented Ukrainian pilots from reaching the skies in F-16s until next summer.
While with this latest move, Ukraine is a step closer to having the equipment and trained personnel required to man the F-16s their military has repeatedly called for, US experts say not to expect an overnight change in the war’s direction.
“It’s not going to be the silver bullet and all of a sudden they’re going to start taking down SA-21s because they have an F-16,” Insider reported Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said earlier this month.