Ukrainian pilots have begun training on U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets in a development that could shift the balance of Kyiv’s counteroffensive against Russian invaders after 18 months of war.
While the arrival of the advanced aircraft into the conflict, and the preparation of Ukrainian military personnel is likely to take several months, officials in Kyiv hailed the development over the weekend.
“Training has begun,” said Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, adding that in addition to pilots, Ukrainian technicians and engineers are also being schooled on the advanced aircraft.
Mr. Reznikov’s comments, which appeared in Ukrainian media outlets Saturday according to CNN, came a day after the Biden administration announced that it had approved the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine from the Netherlands and Denmark.
It was not immediately clear when the first F-16s might enter the conflict. Officials said Ukrainian pilots will first have to undergo at least six months of training.
Ukraine has long pleaded for the sophisticated fighter to give it a combat edge. Kyiv recently launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against the Kremlin’s forces without air cover, placing its troops at the mercy of Russian aviation and artillery.
The counteroffensive has struggled to make gains along a more than 900-mile frontline in Ukraine’s east. But fighting has intensified in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces deploy Western-supplied advanced weapons and a growing number of Western-trained troops.
Russian forces have continued to carry out sporadic missile attacks, often targeting Ukrainian civilians in cities far deep inside Ukraine and far from the frontline in the country’s east.
At least seven people were killed and more than 100 wounded Saturday by a missile strike on the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, according to officials in Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials said 15 children were among those wounded and that a 6-year-old girl was among those killed in the daytime strike. Images of the aftermath showed mangled cars strewn on a street in Chernihiv and damaged buildings, including a theater with its roof blown off in the city.
The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been seeking F-16s and other advanced weaponry from the U.S. and NATO for more than a year. It remains to be seen how many F-16s will get transferred to Ukraine.
U.S. Air Force Gen. James Hecker, the commander of American air forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters in Washington last week that he did not expect the F-16s to be a game-changer for Ukraine. Getting F-16 squadrons ready for battle could take “four or five years,” he said.
But in eastern Ukraine, attack helicopter pilots welcomed the news. They said Russia has a clear advantage in the skies, and the introduction of F-16s could provide a dramatic advantage to Ukraine, even if it takes months for the fighter jets to arrive in the conflict.
Ukrainian air forces supporting infantry are currently using decades-old Soviet-era planes, which are vulnerable to air-to-air missile attacks from Russian fighter jets, Capt. Yevgen Rakita, a spokesman for the 18th Army Aviation Brigade, told The Associated Press.
Mr. Reznikov, the defense minister, did not specify how long the F-16 training program will go, although he said it will involve a “minimal term” of “six months.”
He also suggested that the F-16s that ultimately enter the fight will be stripped of advanced radars, and that it has not yet been determined how the fighter jets will be armed.
“After all, without radars, the plane cannot see, and without machine guns, missiles and shells, it is not a weapon, but only a carrier,” Mr. Reznikov said, according to CNN.
— This article includes wire reports.