Ukraine’s requirement for pilots to operate both Soviet and American F-16 fighter jets has been a longstanding need due to their ongoing conflict with Russian aviation. The process of training Ukrainian pilots for F-16 operations is recognized by both Washington and Kyiv, and it is understood that this will take a significant amount of time. However, the exact duration of the training remains uncertain for several reasons.
Firstly, Ukrainian pilots who are currently serving or have retired have primarily flown Soviet-designed fighters until now. Shifting from the Soviet design to Western aircraft, particularly the American F-16, presents a significant challenge. While a Kyiv official believes that Ukrainian pilots can be trained relatively quickly, opinions from Washington suggest that at least six months will be required for training, and even then, it may not be fully completed.
Secondly, there have been ongoing proposals to recruit pilots with experience in operating Soviet-designed aircraft throughout their careers. This proposal holds merit, especially considering Ukraine’s acquisition of MiG-29 jets from Poland and Slovakia. This approach becomes more relevant as Kyiv lacks clarity regarding the number and timing of F-16 aircraft donations.
Speculations on Twitter have already surfaced regarding this second option. Some accounts mention a Turkish report without specifying the exact source, stating that representatives from NATO countries, particularly Great Britain and the United States, have been actively approaching active and retired pilots of Soviet aircraft from countries that still operate them. Emphasis is placed on flight crews experienced in operating the MiG-29, Su-24, L-39, and Mi-8/24 aircraft. This recruitment effort aligns with the new aviation equipment deliveries intended to bolster approximately four new regiments of the Ukrainian Air Force. The need for personnel from Ukraine itself is time and resource-intensive, hence the exploration of alternative options.
Based on available information, negotiations have taken place with Sudanese, Libyans, Egyptians, and Angolans regarding potential personnel recruitment. Additionally, demands have been made for the release of former Afghan Air Force pilots who fled the country in 2021.
However, the search for personnel may extend beyond former Soviet fighter pilots. According to analysts, former F-16 pilots may also express interest in joining a mercenary contingent in Ukraine. Ukraine could potentially benefit from such individuals, considering the uncertain duration of training for Ukrainian pilots.
A third possibility exists, involving trained and current pilots from NATO and allied countries serving under the Ukrainian flag. However, this option carries significant risks as it could lead to an official war between Russia and NATO, potentially provoked by NATO’s actions. The international community’s response to such a proposal could be contentious.
Ukraine will also need to address the issue of suitable airports for F-16 operations. Currently, Ukraine lacks the necessary infrastructure to support these fighters. The F-16 requires a clear runway, and the presence of Russian fighter jet attacks could quickly render Ukrainian F-16s inoperable.
One logical suggestion circulating online is the construction of new infrastructure in western Ukraine near the Polish border. This would make it less likely for Russian warplanes to bomb such a base, as the risk of inaccurate strikes on Polish territory would be high. If a Russian missile were to hit Polish territory, it could trigger the activation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty by Warsaw.
While Poland expressed concerns a year ago when Ukrainian air defense missiles fell on Polish territory during an attempt to intercept a Russian air target, its current stance indicates a readiness to engage in war with Russia, as some comments suggest.
There are viable options available to Ukraine, whether it involves F-16 pilots or Soviet fighters. It is probable that Washington and London are even willing to financially support these mercenaries. However, Kyiv must carefully consider and choose from the various options. Establishing a new red line, such as a prohibition on entering Russian territory, is likely to be necessary.
However, Ukraine has faced challenges in adhering to its promises. Instances such as the pro-Kyiv regime Russian military entering Russia through Belgorod with equipment donated by the US and its allies, as well as the drone attacks in Moscow (denied by Kyiv but confirmed by Washington), serve as evidence of this.
It appears that the conflict is not heading towards resolution but rather escalating further. The key question is the extent of this escalation and whether additional participants will become involved.