2 Ukrainian pilots are in U.S. to determine fighter jet skills

Two Ukrainian pilots are in the United States for an assessment of their skills in flying fighter jets, according to three people familiar with the discussions, even as administration officials say there are no plans to send F-16s to Kyiv for now.

During the program, which is taking place at an Air National Guard base in Tuscon, Ariz., the pilots have been flying aircraft simulators so the U.S. military can evaluate their flying and mission-planning capabilities, said the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive effort. The pilots will not fly U.S. aircraft.

The aim is to assess their overall skills and what training they need to better use “their own capabilities and capabilities we have provided them on their own planes,” said one of the three, who is a U.S. official. The U.S. has provided bombs, missiles and guidance kits for Ukraine’s Soviet-era aircraft.

“The program involves watching how Ukrainian pilots conduct their mission planning and execution in flight simulators in order to determine how we can better advise the Ukrainian Air Force,” the U.S. official said.

A Defense Department official and another person familiar with the program said the aim is to evaluate how long it will take Ukrainian pilots to learn to fly modern fighter aircraft, including F-16s. The program was supposed to begin late last year, but was delayed, the people said.

The pilots have been at the base for a week and will stay for at least one more week. A Defense Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The news, first reported by NBC News, comes as top Biden administration officials repeatedly bat down the idea of sending the jets anytime soon.

“F-16s are a question for a later time,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a recent interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And that’s why President Biden said that, for now, he’s not moving forward with those.”

Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that the U.S. has not started training Ukrainians on F-16s, and that the timeline for delivering the aircraft is estimated at 18 months.

“Since we haven’t made the decision to provide F-16s and neither have our allies and partners, it doesn’t make sense to start to train them on a system they may never get,” Kahl said.

The decision to bring Ukrainian pilots over to the U.S. for an assessment does not change the thinking on whether to provide F-16s to Kyiv, the U.S. official said.