The US and NATO are considering training Ukrainian pilots

S. BenjiApr 18, 2022

F-15C Eagle

What once looked like a short war, it now appears that there is a stalemate between the Ukrainians and Russians. Despite all odds, the Ukrainians have defied the Russian takeover of their nation and in turn have also caused massive casualties and demolition of military equipment including tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and even sank a warship. Most military experts agree that this will be a protracted war between the two combatants and now there is a need to change the western stance on providing military aircraft and training. 

Since the war began the Ukrainians have been begging all western nations to provide them with fighter jets but so far that proposal has been met with a resounding denial. First Poland rejected the deal to send their MiG 28s and then the US refused to send the A10 warthogs. One of the reasons why jet fighters have been denied to the Ukrainians is because most experts in Europe and the USA felt that they had little or no flying experience with American or European jet fighters and the whole venture would be a total loss of billions of dollars worth of airplanes. 

Well, all that is about to change. Rather than give the Ukrainian jet fighters, both NATO and the US feel that perhaps providing fighter pilot training would be a better and sustainable option.

Now that most experts are predicting the war to last at least 6-12 months, and since the Ukrainians have shown the world that they have the capability to fight, both NATO and the US feel that there is adequate time to train the Ukrainian pilots with Western jet fighters. There is a general feeling that the Ukrainians will prove to be a worthy adversary to the Russian air force after getting trained in air combat with US and European jet fighters. Military experts agree that there simply is no shortcut to assisting the Ukrainians; if the US wants them to succeed against the Russians, then it also needs to provide the Ukrainians with training and support. And the unanimous verdict is that no more time should be wasted on jet fighter training. Waiting will only needlessly allow the Russians to advance and inflict more harm to the Ukrainian people and the nation. And with the Russians regularly threatening nations that want to join NATO with nukes, this is the time to start the training program.

Ukraine's Pilot Status

According to recent data, Ukraine does not have a shortage of fighter pilots; they only have a shortage of jet fighters for them to fly. Experts suggest that NATO/Americans should start the training with the 6-12 most experienced Ukrainian fighter pilots. At the same time, they should offer training to another 6-12 new Ukrainian pilots so that two pipelines are established- one with experienced pilots and the other line of pilots ready for combat; the experienced pilots can then go back to Ukraine and train more new pilots. Experts agree that training in a NATO-aligned country is ideal. It is believed that intense training for a minimum of 3-6 months would help turn out pilots ready for combat. In normal circumstances, it takes nearly 2 years to train a jet fighter pilot, and the more advanced the aircraft, the longer the training. Once the training for the Ukrainian pilots has started, it will hopefully keep operating for many years, even after the Russian conflict is over. 

What jet fighters should be involved in the training?

The F16 with its single-engine, easy upgradability, multirole capability, and superb all-round air performance is the ideal fighter jet for training the Ukrainians. While most Ukrainian pilots expect to be trained with the F16, this is not what the US has in mind. Firstly, the availability of older F16 airframes is a problem. There Is a big demand for them and secondly even the US Navy is keen to purchase more of the F16s- so there is little chance that the Ukrainians will be trained on the F6s as they will not have access to the jet fighter.

Instead, the US is looking to rejuvenate some of the older Block 30/32 Vipers and hand them over to Ukraine. This is in combination with F35s and the first generation of F16s that have not been upgraded. But the US is fully aware that they may need to train the Ukrainian pilots on the early F16 if the Russians start to become more aggressive and adventurous. The bottom line is that the US has only a limited number of advanced F16s and it simply cannot afford to deplete its most resourceful jet fighter.

The Ukrainians argue that they do not need many F16s because they only have a few skilled pilots. The other argument for providing training to the Ukrainian pilots on the F16 is that these jets are already located in many European nations and across the globe. These nations already have developed a solid infrastructure and have good support to keep the F16 well maintained. But for now, it is unlikely that the Ukrainians will be trained on the F16s; it is just not realistic or practical.

The Hornet

Another alternative would be to supply Ukraine with the Hornet. The Hornet evolved nearly 40 years ago and is principally used by the US navy. The US Hornet is ideally suited for the less developed airfields in Ukraine; it is a reliable aircraft that offers aerial refueling, which may allow long-distance flying. The Hornet has excellent radar and is a multi-role aircraft. It is a solid jet fighter that is operated by many air forces including Canada, Australia, Kuwait, Spain, Malaysia, and several more nations. The problem is that the US does not have a stock of hornets ready to give to the Ukrainians- the last 2 years of the covid pandemic led to a slow down in jet manufacture and the supply chains were seriously disrupted. However, some military experts suggest that the US could buy some 33 F/A-18C/DC from the Kuwaitis or Spain and offer them to Ukraine. But since many other nations are vying for these jets and beefing up their airforce, would they be willing to give up their supply?

The F15C/D

The F15C/D would probably be the most powerful jet fighter for the Ukrainian air force. The eagle has been primarily used by the US air force for many years because of its excellent maneuverability, range of weapons, acceleration, and state of art avionics. It is excellent at penetrating enemy defense systems and can overcome many current enemy jet fighters. The F-15 comes with advanced electronic systems and armament that can track, seek, detect and attack enemy aircraft while in the air. The F15 is fully capable of air to air combat and is very capable of diminishing the Russian air threat. The F15 already comes with a cockpit display, a powerful radar, and even a superb ability to intercept stealthy and low flying cruise missiles. The Eagle appears to be the best jet fighter to train the Ukrainians but it is not a cheap jet fighter. The eagle is expensive to maintain and it will need major structural upgrades within a decade- all of which will be costly. But if the Ukrainians want to challenge Russian air supremacy, they will get the most capable US air fighter. Training could be made available in Israel or Japan.

The Swedish Gripen

Finally, another jet fighter that the Ukrainians may benefit from and train is the Swedish Gripen. This light to medium weight jet is reliable,  efficient, and depending on the model it can carry 4-7 Meteor missiles. It was designed to work in harsh wintertime conditions similar to what Ukraine experiences most of the year. It is a durable jet fighter and was the first military jet to carry the deadly Meteor air-to-air missile. It also has a beyond-visual-range weapon that can track and destroy enemy targets at a range of up to 80 miles. 

Another advantage of the Gripen is that it uses less fuel compared to some of the US jet fighters and has a wide range of armory, modern radar and its small size makes it difficult to be spotted visually. While the Gripen is ideal for current Ukraine forces, Sweden is not a member of NATO and the question is will Sweden be willing to give up its only jet fighter?

How many jet fighters will Ukraine need?

Experts in air warfare indicate that most nations need anywhere from 30-75 jet fighters; Ukraine being a huge country may need the higher number. These aircraft need to be dispersed throughout Ukraine but be able to support one another in little time. The problem with Ukraine is that the Russians have demolished a significant number of airfields and hangars in the Eastern part of the country. Keeping these jets safe and hidden from Russian missiles will be a major task. Finally, most nations do not have a stock supply of jet fighters lying around, and hence the only country that can realistically supply the Ukrainians is the US. The US is already supplying the Ukrainians with significant intelligence information and small arms; it is only a matter of time before it starts to offer it the jet fighters.

Final Point

All the above jet fighters carry an advanced training pod that can be used for non-traditional reconnaissance and air-to-ground ordnance delivery. But most importantly, they can be used for long-range air-to-air visual identification of airplanes. Sure there are other aircraft like the Rafael, the Typhoon, and the French mirage but the key is to decide on the type of aircraft and training ASAP. Later the Ukrainians can be trained on a range of aircraft.

Lately, the Russians have been targeting Ukrainian airfields and aviation facilities, so the nation has an incredible amount of work to do to get these facilities back to functionality. With all being said, the availability of a 4th generation fighter and getting pilots to fly may hopefully slow the Russian advance. It would also send a message to the Russians that Ukraine is now ready to defend itself for a long time.

S.Benji is a grad with an advanced degree in the sciences with an interest in avionics. He is a prolific writer with a wide range of publications. Opinions expressed are his own.