The “Viper” – which is what pilots who fly the jet call the F-16 Fighting Falcon – is a great airplane. I know – I have 2,000 hours flying it in many versions in all its multiple roles. So, what will take to get them fighting in the air war defending Ukraine?

Ukrainian civilian and military leadership have been clamoring for F-16s since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. With the announcements made over the last week or so, this is likely to move forward. The UK, France, and finally the US have acquiesced to providing training to get pilots into the “Fighting Falcon” – aka the “Viper” – on an accelerated timeline.

While Kyiv has said this could be done in a mere four months, and internal memos have assessed that American instructor pilots think experienced MiG-29 and Su-27 pilots could be trained in this period of time – that’s not the actual conclusion.

Advertisement

USAF Instructor Pilot recommendations after Ukrainian pilot assessment in the F-16 simulator.

Two combat experienced Ukrainian pilots – one from the MiG-29 and one from the Su-27 – were assessed by some of my former colleagues at the international F-16 training unit in Arizona. They conducted nine simulator missions over two weeks to assess their ability to learn how to operate an F-16.

The conclusion of US instructor pilots was that it would take 12 months to get Ukrainian pilots to wingman level with competency in very simple tactics only for particular missions.

MH17 Disaster: 10-Year Quest for Justice for 298 Victims as Australia Vows to Hold Russia Accountable
Other Topics of Interest

MH17 Disaster: 10-Year Quest for Justice for 298 Victims as Australia Vows to Hold Russia Accountable

"In the end, we were unable to put anyone behind bars," Dutch PM Dick Schoof told NOS on the eve of the MH17 disaster's tenth anniversary. "Justice is there, but not as it should have been."

The course would include only basic tactics deemed necessary for exceedingly fast training.

In the air-to-air arena this would only include single- and two-ship basic intercepts to employ radar and infrared missile employing only tactics within-visual-range, not beyond-visual-range employment from distances beyond 15 kilometers – despite carrying missiles capable of shooting at about 10 times that range. This is not what you want to do against Russian aircraft.

Advertisement

In the surface attack arena, the proposed short course would include only low-level employment of JDAM bombs against pre-planned fixed targets with coordinates known before takeoff. This would not include any training using AGM-88 HARM, AGM-65, or other weapons, including the internal cannon.

Other items left out of training that international pilots normally receive include basic fighter maneuvers, (i.e., dogfighting), two-ship air combat maneuvering, close air support, (i.e., direct support for ground forces engaged on the front lines), and instrument flight (flying through clouds and weather systems). The training also would not include night training sorties or the use of night vision goggles.

The US instructor pilots also assessed that additional English language instruction would be required before the F-16 training could begin.

Training pilots in the F-16

To take an experienced fighter pilot out of another US fighter aircraft and train them, the minimum time from beginning an F-16 transition course to being a combat-ready wingman – not a flight lead, but a less experienced wingman – is nine months. For a new US Air Force pilot after graduation from training aircraft to mission-ready wingman, it takes more than a year to become a wingman operating with direction from a flight lead.

Advertisement

To employ an F-16 is very complex and the combat operations are run by the flight lead – fighter aircraft are never used alone. Becoming a flight lead takes another year to gain experience, plus going through a two-month training program.

I recently exchanged ideas with a former boss about the F-16 for Ukraine. He transitioned from the F-15C to the F-16 and later to the MiG-29. He said:

“From a pilot’s standpoint, any 4+-generation fighter is going to be a huge challenge for anyone who has been brought up on Fulcrums and Flankers. I converted to the Viper after having flown [F-15C] Eagles and F-5s. The C-model [F-16] Viper was a huge step up in sophistication, even compared to the F-15. The current F-16 jets are far beyond that. When I checked out in the MiG-29 it was a huge step backwards. So much so, that with less than 30 hours in the jet, I was officially an IP [instructor pilot], even though I had been doing IP stuff as soon as I finished the conversion course.”

He then said: “Which leaves the often-asked question of how long would it take to get a Ukrainian MiG pilot trained in the F-16? I can only conjecture. That’s probably a question better asked of the Poles since they’ve done it.”

Advertisement

In this area, I can offer some insight. As an F-16 Instructor Pilot at F-16 International Military Training in Arizona – the same unit and location where the two Ukrainian pilots were assessed – I trained pilots who had only flown MiGs in the Polish Air Force.

It was quite a leap. In fact, we resorted to sending them to six months of T-38 training after the first few had such difficulties transitioning to the Viper. The complexity of US and other NATO aircraft is a lot different from former-Soviet jets.

I’m hopeful for a future with Ukraine flying F-16s and even more advanced aircraft. But there are still some hurdles to overcome. Pilot training is probably the biggest.

Training combat experienced MiG-29 and Su-27 pilots to fly the aircraft as wingmen certainly is doable in four months. But the employment as part of a two- or four-ship fighting force, with flight leads orchestrating tactics with complex weapons systems in a fluid environment takes considerably longer.

It takes time to grow flight leads – and you need them because they run the show in real-time.

I’ve trained experienced MiG pilots to fly the F-16 and it takes time to get to that level of ability.

These are not insurmountable problems, but they need to be considered and planned for.

We are getting F-16s here in my adopted Ukraine. But it may take longer than expected before they are ready for combat operations.

Advertisement

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter