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Monday, October 2, 2023

The Training Dilemma: Overcoming Obstacles in F-16 Pilot Development Amidst the Ukraine War

The Challenges of Equipping Ukraine with F-16 Fighter Jets: Training, Maintenance, and Strategic Considerations

Brussels, the Western allies’ meeting place, is buzzing with anticipation as plans to train Ukrainian pilots in operating US-made F-16s are about to be unveiled. However, crucial details such as the countries willing to supply the jets, the quantity, and the timeline remain uncertain.

While supplying Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets is seen as a potential solution, it is not expected to be a quick fix, according to Major General Rolf Folland, the head of Norway’s Air Force. He emphasizes that Ukraine will need time to develop the necessary expertise to handle sophisticated Western aircraft with advanced weaponry.

Amidst these discussions, we find ourselves at a major allied air exercise spanning Norway, Finland, and Sweden, involving a staggering 150 fighter planes—far surpassing the entire fleet of the Ukrainian Air Force.

Gen Folland underscores that the training’s primary objective is to establish air superiority, thereby avoiding the kind of “old-fashioned” conflict currently plaguing Ukraine.

Achieving air supremacy demands a level of scale and sophistication that Ukraine may struggle to replicate. Even providing a small fleet of F-16s could pose a significant challenge.

Pulse, an experienced Belgian pilot, who prefers to be identified by his call sign, shares insights into his three-year journey to master the F-16 fighter jet—a design predating his birth in the late 1970s.

“It flies like a dream,” he affirms, “but flying is the easiest part. The rest is more difficult.”

Mastering the F-16’s radar, sensors, and weapons system presents formidable challenges. Ukraine, which currently has more pilots than available aircraft, aims to compress this training timeline into a matter of months.

Pulse acknowledges the logic behind providing Ukraine with Western jets. He highlights the F-16’s versatile weaponry, including air-to-air missiles for engaging enemy aircraft and bombs for ground targets. “That’s important,” Pulse emphasizes, “because you can utilize any weapons from NATO stocks with this jet.”

However, the question of sustaining and maintaining the jets arises.

The Norwegian Air Force, like other European forces, has transitioned to the more advanced F-35. Consequently, there should be surplus F-16s available for Ukraine.

At Orland Air Base, two old F-16s are employed to train aircraft engineers—a process taking up to a year or even longer for senior aircraft technicians.

“You can’t simply hand over a fighter aircraft and expect them to take off!” cautions Colonel Martin Tesli, the base commander and former F-16 pilot.

He highlights the extensive logistical requirements, including spare parts, software, and weaponry. Nevertheless, he recognizes the imperative of modernizing Ukraine’s fleet of aging Soviet-era jets, stressing that without a replacement, Ukraine risks losing its air force’s defensive capabilities.

According to Justin Bronk from the Royal United Services Institute, Ukraine would likely need assistance from Western contractors to sustain the operation of any provided F-16s. However, the risks in deploying foreign personnel to Ukraine pose a significant question mark.

Professor Bronk also highlights the increased likelihood of Russia targeting Ukraine’s air bases if Western jets were supplied. This poses a danger to the F-16, a single-engine aircraft with a substantial intake that can ingest debris from the runway.

These challenges have long deterred the United States from accepting Ukraine’s requests for F-16s. The concerns revolve less around fears of escalation and more around the practical complexities and costs associated with operating and maintaining these jets, as the Pentagon has cautioned.

Moreover, it is important to note that providing Ukraine with Western fighters is unlikely to significantly impact the ground battle.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Ne

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