A dog fight before F-15s and F-16s reach Ukraine against the Russian Su-30s and Su-35s

If a Ukrainian pilot trains in the United States, it will take about six months to a year and a half.

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is the Co-Founder of the Online Military-Reforms Think-Tank 'Mission Victory India' (MVI), Correspondent at Indian Aerospace & Defence Magazine, and Contributing Editor at Frontier India. He has worked extensively as a Defence Journalist in print and online media with stints at Fauji India and EurAsian Times.

U.S. Congressmen Republican Adam Kinzinger and Democrat Chrissy Houlahan (both former U.S. Air Force officers) introduced a bill to train Ukrainian pilots in the U.S. to conduct combat operations on F-15 and F-16 aircraft.

Congress members also outlined the critical importance of this action in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. They wrote that, as former members of the U.S. Air Force, they are aware that, in a confrontation with the opposition, the U.S. Army seeks to establish air supremacy first. It is clear from publicly available information that neither Russia nor Ukraine have attained air superiority. They are certain that the United States and its NATO allies can assist Ukraine and provide it with a competitive advantage in this battle.

In theory, it appears to be nothing new. The potential of an immediate F-16 supply to Kyiv was openly discussed as early as March 6, 2022, just a few weeks after the commencement of the Russian military operation, according to Anthony Blinken, secretary of state for the State Department. To begin with, the Polish Air Force has operated a fleet of 36 F-16C/D Block 52+ Jastrzabs since 2006.

Blinken said in the spring that, should Poland decide to transfer the F-16s to Ukraine, the United States is carefully considering the possibility of doing so and considering how it may be accomplished.

But Warsaw decided to keep their F-16s, limiting itself to sending Kyiv former Soviet MiG-29s.

Training the Ukrainian Pilots

Retraining the Povitryani Syly Ukrayiny (Ukraine Air Force) pilots for the F-16 will take a lot of time. Ukraine does not have enough time to systematically introduce the new type of planes due to the nature of the fighting on the Russian-Ukrainian front.

Then it seemed that the hysteria on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in deciding on the supply of F-16s died.

Senator Houlahan pointed out that the U.S. should rethink its long-term strategy to help its allies due to the continuation of the conflict in Ukraine. 

If the U.S. gives them the planes, they will need their pilots who can immediately use these planes, Houlahan pointed out.

Dog fight with the Ukrainians

The Pentagon, the State Department, a group of congressmen from the U.S. political parties and some of the most skilled Ukrainian jet pilots convened brainstorming meetings on the issue. A commander of a Ukrainian MiG-29 squadron known only by the odd codename “Moonfish” reportedly admitted that Ukraine currently has more pilots than aircraft because of the losses sustained. The pilots allegedly spent, on average, a day of 20 to 30 missions. These sorties help the ground forces in around 70% of the cases.

However, many in Washington remain undecided about initiating F-15 and F-16 sales to Kyiv. They claim that it takes at least a year to learn how to fight on such an aircraft. Additionally, there is a good chance that Russian special operations may be over sooner.

Kyiv openly refuted the estimation a few months ago. Colonel General Sergei Drozdov, the former commander of Ukraine’s Air Force from 2015 to 2021, wrote a piece on April 19 in which he argued that the retaining would take between two and three weeks. Drozdov claims that the first reason for this is “the transcendental level of their motivation.” As for the second point, he said that many Ukrainian pilots underwent the innovative hands-on training procedures he instituted while he was the Air Force commander. The methods were meant to prioritize practice over theory and quickly get pilots into the aircraft.

However, as per the open sources, in 2018, when Drozdov’s ‘innovative’ training was in full swing, the average flight time of one pilot was just 32-64 hours. It usually ranges higher in most countries. In NATO countries that Ukraine desperately wants to join, it is about 200 hours.

In 2019, Kyiv even considered reducing the funding for pilot training to less than $3 million, which did not allow the cadets to reach a higher level of proficiency.

Some aces were exempt from any limitations on combat training, like those who regularly represented the country in joint exercises with the United States. Few of these are referred to as “Ukraine’s top fighter pilots.” Colonel Alexander Oksanchenko, ‘Grey Wolf’, from the 831st tactical aviation brigade of the Ukrainian Air Force, based in Mirgorod, was called the “Phantom of Kyiv” who allegedly downed dozens of Russian planes in air battles. Oksanchenko, piloting a Su-27, died at the end of February and was posthumously awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine” by President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is unlikely that the aces of Ukraine have survived those catastrophic losses that the Ukrainian Air Force has suffered. 

Much more realistic than Drozdov is the American press writes that the basic course at the F-16 school at Luke AFB, Arizona, takes about nine months and includes academic training, simulator training and sorties. But even before students arrive at Luke, they must complete six months of basic flight training in the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II trainers, seven months in the T-38 Talon, and spend six to eight weeks learning basic fighter control and advanced manoeuvres in the AT-38 Talon.

In total, if a Ukrainian pilot trains in the United States, it will take about a year and a half.

Suppose carefully selected Ukrainian pilots who have already received real combat experience are trained on F series in the U.S., can they match the experienced pilots on the Russian Su-30s and Su-35s? There is a difference between flying and fighting with an aircraft. They might be able to fly the plane in 2-3 weeks and not fight with it. They will be far from ready for battle as they need many flight hours to understand how the aircraft behaves in certain situations. They must also learn how to employ modern radars and weaponry successfully. Thus, they will have to be retrained for at least 3-6 months, depending on the specific model of the aircraft. But if they need to add ground attack capabilities and aerial combat, it will take even longer.

The debate continues

On Friday, Joe Biden signed on a $270 million military aid package for Ukraine while his Defense Department mulls the possibility of providing Kyiv with U.S. fighter jets.

The National Security Council spokesman John Kirby tamped down expectations on the Pentagon deciding on the planes anytime soon, stressing that discussions are currently in their “preliminary” phase.

It won’t be something they can implement immediately or even soon, he told reporters, because managing and integrating any aircraft, particularly sophisticated fighter aircraft with complex sensors and systems and weapons capabilities, is challenging.

“There’s some exploratory thinking, and you’ve got to think about things like training, sustainment, maintenance that these aircraft will be requiring,” said Kirby, emphasizing that the Pentagon is mulling the provision of U.S. aircraft not former Soviet jets.

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