As Ukraine prepares to receive F-16s, a glaring pilot shortfall exists. The Ukrainian Air Force will soon gain roughly 60 aircraft and only has 15-20 pilots. For clarity, 60 aircraft would traditionally demand 90-120 pilots to maximize fleet effectiveness. For Ukraine to bring forward the full potential of these aircraft, they’ll need pilots… and they will need them quickly. Given the US denied Zelensky’s request to prioritize Ukraine pilots in the US F-16 schoolhouse for foreign pilots, the question remains, where will Ukraine quickly get more pilots?

One option, a Foreign Flying Legion (FFL), is perhaps the best and last chance for Ukraine. Much like WWI’s French Lafayette Escadrille or WWII’s Flying Tigers in China against Japan, private US citizens have been and can be rapidly sourced to bring a significant impact into a war. The idea of a Ukrainian FFL isn’t new. Military analysts, journalists, and I surfaced the idea long ago; however, the US administration was not receptive to the idea. Disappointingly, information suggests Washington has even taken active measures to scuttle an FFL effort that Ukraine has tried to foster.

Advertisement

According to a well-placed US government employee who wishes to remain anonymous, a US Embassy official in Kyiv (likely a US military member) informed Ukraine not to pursue an FFL and that any US pilot recruited by Ukraine for such a mission was at threat of losing their US citizenship. Repeated requests to both the US Defense and State Department remain unanswered at the time this article was published.

Starmer’s Foreign Policy: A Continuity of Commitment to Ukraine?
Other Topics of Interest

Starmer’s Foreign Policy: A Continuity of Commitment to Ukraine?

Despite the change of government in the United Kingdom, the new prime minister intends to make continued support for Ukraine against Russian aggression a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

When asking Ukrainian officials if such a message was received, a member of the Ukrainian legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, responded, “What can we say? If we say it’s true, we are at risk of losing US assistance. If we deny it, we hold ourselves hostage to closed door US demands.” While that’s far from clear validation, the past two years of Washington (in)actions supporting Ukraine suggest it is more plausible than not this message was relayed.

Advertisement

Interestingly, if Ukraine established an FFL and a US pilot joined, they would not be the first American to fight in Ukraine. Actually, far from it. According to Malcolm Nance, a member of the Ukraine Army’s International Legionnaires, NY Times best-selling author and former MSNBC counterterrorism & intelligence analyst, hundreds of Americans have served in Ukraine. Most served in the International Legionnaire battalions. Each is under contract and in the Ukrainian Army. Nance also states the laws against such action are fuzzy. “Some people quote the US Code 401(c) in the Nationality Act of 1940, but it has never been enforced.”

That Act states, ‘US nationals would lose their nationality by serving in the armed forces of a foreign state (1) unless expressly authorized by US law and (2) only if the US national had or acquired the nationality of the foreign state.’

As long as private US citizens do not gain Ukrainian citizenship, the law most likely does not apply. To suggest US pilots would be at risk of losing citizenship when hundreds of other Americans have fought, and tragically some died, is at best disingenuous. Hence, it would appear the alleged comments threatening lost citizenship from US Embassy Kyiv may have been an intimidation tactic. Aside from USC 401(c), the US government’s inaction to prosecute the hundreds who have already fought arguably sets a challenging precedent. A US veteran soldier operating US weapons in Ukraine looks extremely similar to a pilot flying a US made F-16 from a legal standpoint. 

Advertisement

Some optimism, however, is warranted. Until recently, the Biden administration has avoided any discussion of Americans in Ukraine. On 26 June, the US administration signaled a willingness for US civilian contractors to enter Ukraine to repair battle damaged equipment. While it’s far from an FFL, the administration seems to be moving in the right direction. Should they support an FFL, there’s plenty of historic precedence for it.

In 1940, President Roosevelt was in clear support of the Flying Tigers. In fact, it was under Roosevelt’s authority that Chennault recruited 80 pilots. Clearly, Roosevelt was willing to take the risk, whereas many suggest Biden is unwilling.

Ron Farkas, a former member of the Office of Defense Cooperation in Poland and currently the CEO of PlusOps (a defense contracting company) in Warsaw has some unique insights to the war and offers the following, “It’s very clear the US is extremely concerned of a civilian US pilot being shot down and or captured by Russia.” Such a scenario cannot be ruled out in warfare, but it was clearly a risk Roosevelt was willing to take. According to Warbird’s Forum, 17 Flying Tigers were killed or missing in action. The Japanese captured four and, although not legally Prisoners of War (PoWs) per the Geneva Convention, reports suggest they were treated as such. Like Roosevelt, President Wilson was also willing to weather similar diplomatic and political firestorms to ensure France had much needed war resources. Germany applied immense pressure on President Wilson regarding US pilots flying for France, a fact juxtaposed to America’s neutrality stance on the war. Wilson, however, stood firm, allowing US pilots to fight for France, of  which, nine were killed.

Advertisement

While President Biden can undertake any policy he wishes, there is growing evidence he’s playing Jekyll and Hyde regarding messaging vs actions in Ukraine. US (in)actions in Ukraine are undeniable. The Biden administration has potentially dissuaded an FFL, delayed F-16 arrival, restricted F-16 training, limited ATACM strikes on Russian territory and more.

Farkas also offers, “As a defense contractor facilitating the resourcing of Ukraine, it is clear the US government is micromanaging the war, leveraging it through logistics.” All of this adds up to a precarious outcome for President Biden. At some point, Russia’s allegations of US involvement in the war will be undeniable. Controlling F-16s (arrival, crewing, operations), ATACMs employment and other directives leaves undeniable US fingerprints on managing (and thus involvement in) the war. In effect, Biden’s grip on the 5,000-mile screwdriver into the Ukraine war will expose his fingerprints on the handle. To the rest of the world, this gives Putin’s accusations of US involvement some credibility. While much of the information campaign out of Moscow is disingenuously false, it is Biden himself who’s ironically validating (to a degree) US participation. 

Advertisement

Luckily for President Biden, it’s not too late. The war in Ukraine still rages, and neither side appears close to victory. Much like Wilson in 1916 and Roosevelt in 1940, President Biden should allow Ukraine to establish an FFL while maintaining a staunch ‘neutrality position.’  And like the other two wartime presidents, he should aggressively own the information space narrative.

No matter what Moscow spins, Russia started WW3 long ago in a slow burn, beginning in conflict in Moldova, then Georgia, Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, the MH17 shoot-down, then the most recent ‘3 days to Kyiv.’ History will show Putin started the war. The chapter regarding who ends it has yet to be written. As Churchill famously stated, ‘Americans will always do the right thing, only after they’ve tried everything else.’ Perhaps now is Biden’s time.

Advertisement

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and reflect neither the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government; nor do they necessarily reflect those of Kyiv Post.

Colonel (Ret) Jeffrey H. Fischer (@jefffisch on X.com) is a 30-year combat veteran and graduate from National Defense University. After two European-based US Embassy assignments, Jeff chose to reside in Austria and is the author of the Curt Nover Action Series available globally on Amazon.

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