Ukrainian aviators will soon begin training on the Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter, under an agreement announced at the NATO summit in Lithuania on 11 July.
Organised by the so-called “fighter coalition” of 11 countries backing Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion, the pact will see pilots from Denmark and the Netherlands lead instruction for Ukrainian counterparts beginning as soon as August.
The coalition includes NATO members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the UK and aspiring member Sweden, according to the Danish defence ministry.
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov confirmed the new agreement on 11 July, praising the development.
“F-16s will protect Ukraine’s skies and NATO’s eastern flank,” Reznikov tweeted. “The Ukrainian air force is prepared to master them as quickly as possible.”
The defence minister specifically praised the “outstanding leadership” of Denmark and the Netherlands in organising the fighter coalition. Reznikov says that pilots, technicians and support staff will all participate in the programme.
“The purpose of the training effort is for the Ukrainian air force to have the basic skills and prerequisites to fly, service and maintain F-16 aircraft,” the Danish defence ministry says.
Initial training for Ukrainian personnel will be conducted in Denmark, while a longer-term site is established in Romania.
The Ukrainian air force currently operates Soviet-era combat aircraft, namely the RAC MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-24, Su-25 and Su-27. Kyiv has been seeking the transfer of Western fighters to boost its capabilities and replenish losses from the nearly 18-month old war.
American intelligence assessments leaked earlier this year estimate that Ukraine had lost 60 fixed-wing aircraft as of February – a figure equal to 53% of the country’s pre-war fighter fleet.
Exactly where the replacement aircraft will come from remains unclear. Poland and Slovakia have transferred MiG-29s to Ukraine, but a supplier of F-16s has yet to emerge.
The USA has for months resisted calls to provide fighter aircraft to Ukraine, citing concerns about provoking Russia and the ability of the Ukrainian air force to maintain advanced jets like the F-16.
As the product of an American manufacturer, the US government retains approval of any F-16 sales to overseas customers and the transfer of existing aircraft to a third party.
While the Biden administration has not committed to directly providing F-16s to Ukraine, Washington has signalled an openness to allowing European governments to transfer their jets to Kyiv.
At the G7 summit in May, the Biden administration revealed a change of thinking, with officials saying Washington was now open to allowing such transfers.
“The support has evolved over time, as the war has evolved,” US National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said.
Notably, the USA was not listed as a member of the fighter coalition, despite a direct entreaty from Kyiv to join the group. During a formal visit to Washington in April, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal was clear the government in Kyiv is seeking that support.
“We are inviting the United States to become [the coalition’s] most important participant… America can once again demonstrate its leadership by providing Ukraine with [Boeing] F-15 or F-16 aircraft,” Shmyhal said.