Ukrainians are not trained to operate U.S. F-16 fighter jets, would not be Russia-Ukraine war game-changer, says Jake Sullivan
03/01/2024 // Belle Carter // Views

For White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, sending the United States-manufactured fighter planes would not have made any difference in Kyiv’s failed summer counteroffensive on Russian attacks because Ukraine does not have enough trained F-16 pilots to fly them.

Sullivan told ABC News that even if the U.S. was able to deliver the aircraft early, they would not have been a game-changer, disagreeing with the narrative that the White House did not provide enough "war-fighting equipment" for Ukraine to succeed on the front line.

"The idea that we did not mobilize a massive quantity of resources and capabilities to deliver to Ukrainians simply doesn't wash," Sullivan answered when asked whether the White House's incremental approach to deliveries of advanced weaponry was to blame for Ukraine's lack of progress in the battling of Russian forces. "If you look at some total of what the United States provided to Ukraine in this fight it is an incredible quantity of material delivered at speed, at scale outpacing the expectation."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly appealed for Western fighter jets, saying they are needed to counter Russian air attacks. According to Sullivan, the fault is not with them. He "clarified" that the delay in delivery was not because they were not available. “There are additional capabilities that Ukrainians have looked for, F-16 being one of them," he continued, explaining that while they are prepared to provide the jets, Ukrainians would not be able to maintain, let alone operate them.

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Back in August, U.S. President Joe Biden, after denying Ukrainian appeals for the F-16 for more than a year, took back his words in May and said he backed the idea of training Ukrainian pilots on the jets. Biden supported the transfer of the planes by other countries and so Denmark and the Netherlands volunteered to lead a training effort, prompting hopes among officials in Kyiv that the planes would be defending Ukrainian airspace by as early as September. (Related: Netherlands, Denmark confirm U.S. approval of F-16s for Ukraine – but will it matter?)

Back then, a U.S. official, who requested anonymity to be able to speak on the matter, revealed Washington would be prepared to bring the aviators to the United States, where the Air Force trains some 400 F-16 pilots a year if European capacity proves insufficient to meet Ukrainian demand. They described the training effort, rather than hobbled by Western foot-dragging as Ukrainian officials charge, as only slowly getting off the ground because of the complexities of standing up a new international initiative and the challenges Ukraine must face in identifying aviators with the right skills amid an existential fight. They left the F-16 training effort to European allies.

Moscow has also warned that the move would be a dangerous escalation, given that with some modifications F-16 can carry nuclear bombs, and vowed to destroy the jets in Ukraine if they arrive.

Zelensky: F-16 pilots’ training on the final stage

As the war with Russia enters its third year, Zelensky is standing his ground, convinced that Ukraine can still take Moscow down. The Ukrainian president recently released a video showing off his nation's pilots preparing  to train on F-16 fighter jets.

Zelensky suggested that training for some Ukrainian pilots was entering the final stages and that the aircraft would be available soon. "All Ukrainians are waiting for the day when the first Ukrainian F-16s appear in our skies and strengthen the defense of our cities and communities," he wrote on X.

The video that went viral showed how the aircraft was being serviced and taken off. "Our combat experience is truly invaluable, but still, this is a very condensed training program," one pilot who was named Moonfish said. "I think the boost here is not the combat experience but the motivation to go back and keep fighting," he said, adding that it was more agile than the MiGs he had been flying. "It feels like the jet wants to you to fly it more aggressively."

A technician named in the clip as Ihor admitted that the system seemed "incomprehensible to us and unrealistic to integrate in Ukraine" at first but he claimed to realize that it simplifies the work, saves time and helps us move forward. The video described how the F-16 would keep Russian aviation away from Ukraine's borders.

The first Danish F-16 fighter jets are expected to be handed over to Ukraine this summer, the country's defense minister Troels Lund Poulsen said, although there were "several conditions that must be met for Ukraine to use" them. Poulsen said the coalition of countries providing the fourth-generation fighter jets "are now working to bring things together this summer." Meanwhile, Belgium will transfer F-16s to Ukraine, but not until 2025, while Norway has confirmed it will supply F-16s soon.

Head over to for more updates on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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