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Ukrainian pilots begin training on F-16 fighter jets

Netherlands' Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly during a media day illustrating how NATO Air Policing safeguards the Allies' airspace in the northern and northeastern region of the Alliance, July 4, 2023. (Photo by Reuters)

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov says the training has begun for Ukrainians to operate US F-16 fighter jets, a move that brings Kiev closer to obtaining a long-sought-after military asset.

Reznikov told Ukrainian media on Saturday that alongside pilots, several Ukrainian engineers and technicians are participating in the instructional program. While Reznikov refrained from specifying the training's end date, he mentioned that the minimum period of the training process is six months.

The F-16 training program, supported by a coalition of 11 NATO countries, included technical language training, as Reznikov said the usual basic English level was insufficient.

The defense minister highlighted the importance of defining the aircraft’s armament.

“After all, without radars, the plane cannot see, and without machine guns, missiles and shells, it is not a weapon, but only a carrier,” he said.

The training program is part of a broader effort by NATO to bolster Ukraine’s defenses amid the war with Russia.

Denmark and the Netherlands have taken the lead in preparing a program to train Ukrainian pilots on the American jet, but the US is still working with other countries to see who may provide F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Sunday that the Netherlands and Denmark will give an unspecified number of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine once all transfer conditions are met.

"Today we can announce that the Netherlands and Denmark commit to the transfer of F-16 aircraft to Ukraine and the Ukrainian Air Force," in cooperation with the US and other allies, he said in a joint press conference with Zelensky at a military air base in Eindhoven.

The pledge, made as Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Netherlands, is the first real promise of F-16s for Ukraine's armed forces. It came two days after the United States approved F-16 fighter jets provided to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands upon the completion of pilot training.

Zelenskiy, for his part, called the deal a "breakthrough agreement", saying the aircraft would reinforce Ukraine's air defenses and bolster its counter-offensive capabilities.

Ukraine has consistently called on its Western allies to supply its forces with F-16 fighter jets. Western allies were initially reluctant to provide Kiev with advanced warplanes, fearing the provision of new fighter jets might trigger a direct confrontation between the US-backed NATO military alliance and Moscow.

However, sentiments changed after US President Joe Biden signaled at the Group of Seven Summit in May in Japan that a training program for Ukrainian pilots in the operation of F-16s could begin.

Russia has repeatedly warned that the transfer of F-16 to Ukraine would be a “colossal risk” that could escalate the war.

In this regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin blames the West for stoking the "flames of war" by sending arms and weapons to Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Russia. Putin said that the Western-supplied weapons and munitions were burning up in Ukraine.

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