The Deliberate Path to Ukraine F-16 Training

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A few days ago, the plate tectonics of the Ukraine-Russian war quickened as the US and its allies gave policy-level approval to transfer fourth-generation F-16s to Ukraine. The implications of the new missions the Ukrainian air force may be able to attempt with these fighter aircraft are significant.

Following these policy pronouncements, the open-source media has been filled with most things F-16: from the jet fighter’s combat capabilities and characteristics to the numbers of F-16s Ukraine needs to help defeat Russia and secure their territorial integrity – for starters. Absent in the media has been any substantive discussion on the requirements and challenges of establishing a Ukraine Air Force F-16 training enterprise.

Herewith – exclusive to MS&T – are selective government insights on a range of training readiness-specific topics vital to the pilots and maintenance personnel needed to operate the Ukrainian Air Force’s initial- and follow-on F-16 tranches.

No F-16 Transfers to Ukraine – Yet

As this is written, the US and other governments exhibited good intentions to transfer F-16s to Ukraine – but there were no indications any F-16 variant had been received by that government.

In one case, a statement from the Polish MoD of May 24 noted, in part, “It should be emphasized that Poland does not currently plan to transfer F-16 aircraft to Ukraine.”

Similarly, a response received on background from the Pentagon simply confirmed the US has not transferred any F-16s to Ukraine.

Also this May 24, Trond Øvstedal, Senior Adviser and Spokesperson in the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, provided MS&T with a statement from which we could ‘quote Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram’: “We are constantly considering new donations to Ukraine, but do not comment on concrete future contributions. Norway has given considerable support to Ukraine after the invasion, and will continue to do so in the years to come. Ukraine has widely addressed the need for fighter aircraft in the past, including in the international donor meeting IDCG.”

Of related interest, Norway has previously entered into a contract for the sale of 32 aircraft to Romania. Norway has also entered into a contract with adversary training company Draken International ( Defence Contractor Draken International Offers Air Adversary Training | 2018-07-04 | Halldale Group) for the sale of up to 12 F-16 aircraft. “The sale is dependent on approval from the American and Norwegian authorities, which is still in process,” the official concluded.

And finally, May 23, Morten Kaus, Press Chief at the Danish Ministry of Defence, provided MS&T with a statement attributable to Acting Minister of Defence Troels Lund Poulsen. The defense leader said, in part, “Whether Denmark is donating F-16 jets to Ukraine is still to be clarified,” and emphasized, “A donation [of F-16s] is a question we will consider at a later stage”.

While F-16s are not yet in the Ukrainian air order of battle, plans are quickly moving to train that service’s pilots and maintainers to operate and support these fighter aircraft.

Developing a Ukraine F-16 Training Enterprise

Huge challenges exist to establishing this enterprise. Yet, to the possible relief of some in the US Congress and elsewhere in the nation showing signs of “donor fatigue” to the Ukraine war, major opportunities exist to help launch an F-16 training program for Ukraine, especially in a truly international context.

Retired US Air Force Brig. Gen. John Teichert provided MS&T with vital details on wide-ranging challenges to establishing a Ukraine F-16 training enterprise. The retired general officer commented from the perspective of having garnered significant operational experience in the Air Force and being elevated to senior leadership positions in security operation activities, including political-military affairs and security assistance programs.

One exploratory effort this February and March saw the US Air Force complete a 12-day evaluation of two experienced Ukrainian fighter pilots in F-16 flight simulators and associated training at Morris Air National Guard Base, Tucson, Arizona. Teichert, observed, “The results, and more importantly the pilots, were impressive,” and significantly added, “Based on the outcome of the trial, it is likely that these experienced pilots could become combat capable in an F-16 in less than four months from the start of their training.” There was not an equivalent trial for F-16 maintenance personnel earlier this year. “Yet, with the right training construct, and supplemented by contractor support, the four-month time frame is a reasonable one for new Ukrainian F-16 maintainers as well.”

At this stage, the establishment of a Ukraine F-16 training program may not likely be a go-it-alone effort for the US, as there are seven NATO states that have flown F-16s.

Indeed, Acting Danish Minister of Defence Poulsen’s statement to MS&T continued, “Today in Bruxelles and yesterday in Warszawa I’ve had the opportunity to discuss possible models for training of Ukrainian pilots for the F-16 jets with my colleagues. I am very happy to see that the coalition behind training pilots for F-16 continuously broadens. It will be an important strategic step in the long term,” he said, and added, “The first step is to find out which countries that want to be involved in carrying out the training mission, and in this matter Denmark is ready to play a key role. It’s possible to begin the training mission without it automatically leading to a donation of fighter aircraft.”

And the Polish MoD’s Media Branch’s statement to MS&T on F-16s also noted, “It is too early to talk about the details of the training of Ukrainian pilots in Poland. As you know, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Mariusz Błaszczak announced yesterday that Poland is ready to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 aircraft. Such training has not yet started.” The MoD statement continued, “The head of the Ministry of National Defence proposed that such training should be included in the EU training mission conducted in Poland. The number of trained pilots will depend on the capabilities of Poland, which, as a country on NATO's eastern flank, has obligations, e.g., towards the Baltic states. We are open in this matter,” noted Błaszczak.

Indeed, Teichert opined that creating a consolidated F-16 training center in Europe, using pilot and maintainer expertise from F-16-equipped nations, would be the likely foundation of an effective and responsive Ukrainian F-16 training construct. “This enterprise could be supplemented with US F-16 expertise, either currently resident in Europe or from other locations. Additionally, the 162nd Wing in Tucson, Arizona should play a major role in this effort as an organization that specializes in foreign F-16 training.”

The 162nd Wing is the US lead for training F-16 pilots for foreign partners and allies, including Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Of related importance, the levels of technology and mission fidelity in the fighter wing’s training devices are cutting-edge. In one instance, the 162nd uses MVRSimulation’s VRSG (Virtual Reality Scene Generator) for 3D terrain and 3D models in two reconfigurable flight simulators capable of representing either an F-16C block 30 SCU 9.0 or a block 40 M7.1 aircraft.

Elsewhere within US F-16 training capacity, a Ukraine F-16 training enterprise may draw on capabilities of European-based Air Force F-16 units: the 31st Fighter Wing at Italy’s Aviano Air Base, and the 52nd Fighter Wing at Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base.

Moving Beyond the ‘Easy Part’

Teichert offered that wise experts have said that “operations are for amateurs, but logistics are for professionals.” As such, creating a cadre of Ukrainian combat-capable F-16 pilots is the easy part of such an overall F-16 enterprise. He emphasized, “Western nations need to pay proper attention to the vast range of supportability elements that go into creating and sustaining the operations of a new aircraft type in Ukraine. That will include basing, base protection and security, fuels, weapons, parts, and manuals that will enable a sustainable capability in the midst of challenging combat conditions.”

And beyond the initial tranches of prospective Ukrainian F-16 pilots and maintainers, Teichert reflected that, in a perfect world, that nation’s F-16 pilots and maintainers would be able to replicate themselves by indigenously producing others like them. “Yet, their conditions in Ukraine are far from perfect. As a result, the international training enterprise that is created for this immediate need should be designed to remain the backbone of the production of qualified F-16 pilots and maintainers for the foreseeable future until a more steady-state, lasting solution can be found.” The community expert concluded, “Fortunately, there has been a long-term discussion about the benefit of creating a Europe-based F-16 training enterprise for international partners, and this situation might provide the impetus to accomplish something that is long overdue with broader impact than just Ukraine.”

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