The Ukrainian Air Force has turned to a popular computer game flight simulator developed by a Russian software company to help its combat pilots prepare for real life air battles against the Russian air force, aboard America’s top-end, high-tech, NATO-standard F-16 fighter jet.

In one of the more ironic twists of the Russo-Ukraine war, the formerly Russian developer company that made the sim the Ukrainians are using, called Digital Flight Simulator, saw one of its executives – a Russian national – arrested and sentenced in 2019 for obtaining official F-16 and sending them abroad illegally. The now Swiss company and the man say everything was on the up and up.

A promotional video published by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) on Wednesday showed a man identified as Andriy, an active-duty Ukrainian fighter pilot, using an open market gaming rig with virtual reality goggles to practice formation flying and air operations over an active battlefield.

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The aircraft simulated was identical to the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet, a US-produced aircraft on track to be delivered in small quantities to Ukrainian air force pilots sometime in 2024.

The aircraft is popular with US and allied pilots for its speed, maneuverability and ease of use. An instructor monitored the simulated mission’s progress and the Ukrainian pilot’s use of control stick and throttle replicator, and his radio calls in English, the video showed.

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All AFU air regiments have received flight simulator software and computer gaming equipment for simulating F-16 flight, and pilots potentially slotted to transition from Soviet-era aircraft to incoming F-16s practice on the computer game regularly, Ukrainian Air Forces spokesman Yury Ihnat said.

The main goal of the practice will be to help teach AFU pilots currently assigned to operate Soviet-era aircraft learn key differences between those air frames’ control layout, and the F-16, the report said.

The flight simulator program uses GPS-type mapping to simulate flight over an accurate representation of all of Ukraine’s territory and topography, which also will help pilots flying actual lower-level missions over real Ukrainian terrain, the report claimed.

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The AFU currently operates two legacy twin-engine fighter jets, the larger Su-27 [NATO “Flanker”] and smaller MiG-29 [NATO “Fulcrum”]. The mid-20th century cockpit in both aircraft places the control stick centrally between the pilot’s legs, and displays almost all targeting, navigation, and communications data on analogue-tech dials or screens, with each function controlled by individual on-off switches.

The modern F-16 fighter jet, first fielded in the 1970s and continually updated by the US manufacturer General Dynamics and later Lockheed-Martin dramatically reduces workload placed on the pilot by displaying data digitally in selected modes filtering out data not needed at the moment, for example by not displaying dogfight and targeting data during a landing approach.

In contrast to the hundreds of switches and dials on a Soviet-era combat jet, in the F-16 control of the most critical functions in the F-16 is concentrated in buttons on the aircraft’s control stick and throttle, and the control stick itself is on the right side of the cockpit. The video showed the pilot Andriy, identified as a Su-27 pilot currently flying combat missions, using a throttle and control stick configured to replicate an F-16 layout without visible difficulty.

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Images of a high-fidelity F-16 cockpit and gamer interface and hardware showed the simulation used in the AFU video to be identical to the DCS’ F-16 mod – including the control stick, throttle, and function buttons all exactly replicated – Kyiv Post research found.

Active-duty Ukrainian pilots practicing on the flight simulator regularly will transition and more quickly to F-16s when they become available, the AFU report said. Partisan Russian information platforms claimed the AFU’s use of a civilian flight sim was proof of weak Western support to Ukraine and Ukrainian military inefficiency, Kyiv Post researchers, one a former F-16 pilot, concluded.

The AFU video did not identify the flight simulator program by name. Multiple sources have identified the program as Digital Combat Simulator World (DCS), a popular high fidelity flight simulator developed by the software company Eagle Dynamics for Windows platforms and released in 2008 and updated through to the present. Video reviewed by Kyiv Post researchers found images and equipment displayed by the AFU to be effectively identical to DCS sim in operation.

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DCS is a freeware program focusing on combat aircraft and operations. Users must purchase software to operate most aircraft in the simulation, including the F-16. The list price of the DCS F-16C Viper software package is $79.99. For that the customer gains access to high-fidelity replication of practically all the F-16’s combat capacities, including use of advanced AIM-120 AMRAAM long-range active-radar missiles and AIM-9X Sidewinders medium-range IR (infrared) missiles in air-to-air combat, and AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles in ground strikes.

Eagle Dynamics was founded in Moscow in 1991 and currently is headquartered in Switzerland. In 2019 company senior officer Oleg Tishchenko was charged and subsequently sentenced in the US state of Utah for transferring F-16 flight manuals abroad in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. He was sentenced to ten years in prison but was quickly deported back to Moscow.

F-16 Mission Training Center simulator in use by the Burlington, Vermont Air National Guard. PHOTO: USAF/SSgt. Dan DiPietro

Eagle Dynamics later issued a statement that Tishchenko’s possibly illegal acquisition of official use only US Air Force information about the F-16 was not related to the company’s activities.

Kyiv Post researchers did not find any reports that the documents in question held classified information but determined the transfer, nevertheless, likely would violate the federal regulations of the US export act related to military systems.

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Tishchenko in public statements said he collects military aircraft manuals for fun, that the F-16 manuals found by US investigators to be in his possession did not contribute to DCS development of its industry-leading high-fidelity F-16 simulator. He pled guilty in court in Utah.

According to Pentagon statements, the first phase of long-term Ukrainian F-16 pilot training kicked off at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio Texas on Sept. 28 with the launch of English language classes focusing on NATO warplane terminology and voice procedures, including radio terminology and rules of engagement authentication.

Training for Ukrainian pilots with sufficient English to begin transitioning to the F-16, according to NATO nation statements, was scheduled to start in August. Most often, according to those reports, the training was set to take place at Fetisci air base in eastern Romania, however, a full month after that deadline had passed a start to that transition training is yet to be announced.

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Following the US administration’s Aug. 18 announcement of formal approval of transfer of F-16 aircraft to Ukraine, senior defense officials from the Netherlands and Denmark have said their countries plan to donate aircraft. Belgium, Great Britain Romania and Denmark have offered training facilities.

According to AFU statements, training depending on incoming pilot skills, aircraft availability and training facility capacity will run from four months (for experienced pilots to Denmark) to two years (for brand-new pilots in Great Britain). Follow-on training in many more advanced capabilities the F-16 offers would require additional training, some of which could theoretically take place in country.

The Washington Post reported a key reason for the slow pace of transfer of F-16s to Ukraine, and the complexity of organizing the training, is because of White House and Pentagon insistence that Ukrainian incorporation of the F-16 jet be a Europe- rather than a US-led program. Six designate pilots and two alternate pilots are in Denmark currently, the article said.

 

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