Ukraine’s new F-16 fighter jets once deployed for combat will undergo major maintenance in the NATO member state Poland, a senior US government official said on Tuesday.

Bill Laplante, US Deputy Secretary of Defense for Procurement and Logistics, announced at a Defense Summit organized by the newspaper Politico in Washington.

“The plan is to carry out complex maintenance in Europe as far as we can, and Poland is one place... other things are being organized,” Laplante said in response to the question whether it is planned to carry out complex maintenance of these F-16s in Poland.

It was the first confirmation by a senior US government official of NATO nation plans to support Ukraine-operated F-16 fighter aircraft, a high-performance, fourth-generation fighter needing fully-equipped supply and repair facilities, with Polish maintenance infrastructure, and possibly mechanics.

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Other countries might contribute repair facilities and technicians to support the Ukrainian aircraft, Laplante said.

Ukrainian and Russian media were quick to report Laplante’s comments. Moscow has objected to NATO nation plans to transfer F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force and train the pilots and maintainers, as unwarranted interference by Brussels in Russia’s natural sphere of influence.

The Kremlin-run wire service TASS, citing Laplante, said that the US-led coalition planned for only “light maintenance” of the Kyiv-operated F-16s to be performed by Ukrainian aviation mechanics inside Ukraine, while major repairs and complicated fixes would be handled by “allies and partners” in Poland and other NATO states. When possible, the Western mechanics would advise their Ukrainian counterparts remotely, the report said.

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Laplante did not offer details on what F-16 maintenance precisely might be performed in Ukraine and what repair and overhaul work would take place elsewhere. A common major repair for an F-16, in combat operations, is scheduled maintenance, overhaul or replacement of the jet’s engine. The task normally requires a fully-equipped maintenance facility and a team of trained technicians typically needing six months to a year of training, with experienced supervisors, to do the job competently.

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Polish officials in August told the Ukrainian state military information platform Suspine that Warsaw is “prepared” to help Ukraine train F-16 maintenance technicians and that Poland’s military specializes in combat aircraft maintenance instruction. Poland’s main F-16 repair facility is at Polish Military Aviation Depot No.2, in the city of Bydgoszcz.

Currently, the Russian air force regularly bombs Ukrainian military airfields and according to the Kremlin’s aircraft destruction claims it has destroyed Ukraine’s air force, in its entirety, at least twice. A Russian air strike against a NATO air base servicing Ukrainian F-16s would almost certainly trigger a conventional war between Russia and NATO.

Moscow has repeatedly warned major Western military assistance to Ukraine would be a red line dictating severe Russian response, but thus far the threats have been hollow. TASS in May quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksander Glushko as describing Ukraine's allies' plans to hand over F-16s to Ukraine as “a colossal risk.”

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However, an air training center in Romania with the specific mission of preparing Ukrainian F-16 pilots to fight the Russian air force went operational on Monday with no visible Kremlin reaction past rhetoric.

The International F-16 Pilot Training Center opened at the 86th Air Force Base “Lieutenant Aviator Gheorghe Mochornice,” in the Romanian city of Fetes, with five F-16s donated by the Netherlands already on the tarmac. According to NATO statements, the center’s mission is to train pilots both from NATO countries and Ukraine. Representatives from Denmark, the Netherlands, the US and Ukraine and Lockheed-Martin, the American F-16 manufacturer, were present at the ceremony.

According to Ukrainian news reports, a limited number – counts range from 6 to 20 aviators – of skilled Ukrainian fighter pilots will receive crossover training at the Fetes center next year, and currently are in English language or NATO aircraft transition training in the US states Texas and Arizona. Ukrainian officials have predicted the first Ukrainian pilots will complete the entire F-16 training cycle, including a final phase aboard actual F-16s based at Fetes, by Spring or Summer.

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President Zelensky in August said the Netherlands would in total donate 42 jets once Ukrainian pilots and maintainers had been trained. Denmark’s Defense Ministry has said it would eventually donate 19 F-16s to Ukraine. Neither country has said when the transfers would be completed.

The international campaign to put F-16s into Ukrainian skies has seen repeated delays with participating governments haggling about scale and value of individual contributions, debates on the wisdom of arming Ukraine with a fourth-generation NATO aircraft, and conflicts over whether the US-manufactured F-16, the competing Swedish Gripen fighter, the British-German Eurofighter Typhoon, or the French Rafale was the best fit for a cash-strapped Ukrainian Air Force fighting a full on conventional war against Russia. 

Modern fighter jets are highly anticipated by Ukraine’s government and people, whose military has fought for 20 months against a powerful Russian air force, and whose cities and towns have been battered by Russian missiles and drones difficult to intercept without capable Ukrainian fighters protecting its national air space.

A Monday fly-by of a pair of F-16 jets at Fetes, by Tuesday, was widely reported in Ukrainian media as the first time Ukrainian pilots had actually flown an F-16. Video of the flyby posted on Telegram showed the lead aircraft was an F-16AM single-seat aircraft while the wingman aircraft was an F-16BM two-seater.

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All F-16 units fly primarily single-seat aircraft but usually have a few two-seat models for instruction purposes, where an instructor pilot (IP) or flight examiner would occupy the backseat for recurring instruction and for periodic “check-rides” to verify a pilot’s continued qualification to operate the jet safely and with proper tactical combat mission proficiency.

Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, in Nov. 14 comments on an evening national television news program said that main reason for this week’s delivery of five Dutch F-16s to a fighter pilot training base under construction in Romania on Nov. 8, was so that the Netherlands military could stop paying for maintenance of aircraft it no longer planned to use, and transition faster to the fifth-generation F-35 fighter.

Widespread news reports Tuesday that Ukrainian pilots had for the first time taken to the air at the controls of an F-16 from Romania’s airfield were wrong, in fact, the Ukrainian airmen are still in training and it will be weeks or months before their first flight in the US aircraft, Ihnat said.

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