House Democrats to Austin: Train more Ukrainian F-16 pilots

A group of House Democrats is urging the Pentagon to expand training for Ukrainian F-16 pilots as Kyiv races to improve its defenses against Russia.

Why it matters: The lawmakers, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are backing Ukraine’s request for 10 more of their F-16 pilots to be trained this year, and are asking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a new letter to make it happen.

“The request comes at a critical juncture in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia, where the deployment of F-16 aircraft has the potential to significantly influence the outcome of the war,” the 15 lawmakers said in their letter, obtained by POLITICO.

“By the end of the year, Ukraine will have more F-16 aircraft than they will have qualified pilots to fly them, this situation threatens to undermine the strategic advantages these aircraft could provide Ukraine,” the group added.

State of play: President Joe Biden last year approved the third-party transfer of aircraft from Norway, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, but pilot training efforts have faced logistical challenges.

POLITICO first reported that Ukraine says it has 30 pilots who are eligible to start training in the U.S. immediately, and that the Biden administration has told Kyiv it lacks the school seats in its Arizona-based program to accept more than 12 pilot trainees at a time.

As a result, Kyiv has been pressing U.S. and European partners to expand the speed and scale of fighter pilot training, even as allies counter that Ukraine’s pilots aren’t yet ready to start flying its incoming F-16 jets in large numbers.

Hill focus: The American lawmakers argue that NATO allies have extensive training programs and could meet Ukraine’s request for more training. But they want the Pentagon to lead the way. That “may provide the most expedient means” of broadening the pipeline, they wrote.

“This effort not only enhances Ukraine’s ability to utilize the F-16s effectively but also reinforces the broader coalition’s commitment to supporting Ukraine in its fight for sovereignty and territorial integrity,” they added.