Denmark and the Netherlands heading coalition of 11 nations responsible for training pilots and ground personnel
This week at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, it was announced that the training of future Ukrainian F-16 pilots and ground personnel will officially commence in Denmark next month. Denmark and the Netherlands are spearheading a coalition of 11 nations also including Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, plus Ukraine. NATO allies Denmark and the Netherlands initiated the effort last month and, on July 11, coalition members signed a joint statement that marks the official launch of the F-16 training effort with the aim of training pilots and ground support staff, maintaining aircraft, and eventually delivering F-16s to Ukraine. Training will also be open to other allies who are transitioning their older Soviet-era planes to the F-16 and may also include other aircraft at a later stage.
”It is imperative that Ukraine is able to defend its own airspace. The first step is to teach the Ukrainians to pilot, service and maintain F-16s at a basic tactical and technical level. It is a major long-term effort and therefore it is crucial that many nations now have joined forces to complete this task. In time, it will make a major and important difference for Ukraine’s struggle for freedom,” said acting Danish Defense minister Troels Lund Poulsen. In late June, he stated that Ukrainian pilots will need six to eight months of training.
The preliminary plan is to train 10-12 pilots and 30-40 support staff at Skrydstrup Air Base in Denmark. Denmark and other nations will likely also donate secondhand F-16s to Ukraine, but for now, training is the primary focus.
Also, the coalition has decided to set up a training center in Romania to sustain all training efforts. Once that is up and running, training will continue there.
Ukraine is applauding the NATO initiative and is grateful to the coalition members for their contribution and leadership. “We started out more than 500 days ago with mostly Soviet-era equipment. From the West, we only had a few Javelins. Now after 500 days, we have received new weapon systems from our partners including artillery systems, MLRS systems, and air defense systems such as Patriot, NASAMS, IRIS-T and others. But fighter jets are a central component of an air defense system and air defense weapons are our top priority,” said Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
Danish defense minister Troels Lund Poulsen stressed that Ukraine needs fighter jets more than ever if it is to succeed in the war against Russia – and that includes Danish F-16s. The question about a Danish donation of aircraft remains open and will follow at a later date. Recently, Denmark announced it now plans to retire its F-16 fleet in 2025 instead of 2027. Denmark’s F-35 fleet will be operational sooner than expected, which is the main reason behind the decision. Denmark has committed to buying 27 F-35s.
It is important to understand that operating F-16s is not just about learning to fly and maintaining them. It is a system of systems that also includes the supply of ordnance such as rounds for the 20mm cannon, air-to-air and air-to-ground-missiles, smart munitions, and bombs, as well as chaff and flares for self-protection.
It has been a long road to this point. Likely due to fears of escalating the conflict, and because higher priority was being assigned to the donation of other weapon systems, NATO members have so far refrained from supplying fighter jets to Ukraine’s armed forces. Finally, in April of this year and over a year after the invasion of Ukraine commenced, Poland donated four Soviet-era MiG-29s, followed by additional donations by both Poland and Slovakia soon after. In May, the U.S. announced it would allow its Western allies to supply advanced fighter jets to Ukraine, including American-made F-16s.
Ukraine will likely receive its first F-16s in 2024, followed by larger donations in 2025 and beyond as NATO members continue to transition to the F-35. It will be interesting to see whether bulk shipments of F-16s will be a game-changer in the conflict or more of an add-on to Ukraine’s fighting capabilities.