Updated: Sep 20
Don't be surprised when the U.S. Air Force has been training Ukrainian pilots "secretly" for a long time already.
The official Twitter account for the Air Force of Ukraine publicly requested that NATO provide them with Western fighter jets like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle to aid them in their fight against Russia.
According to the social media statement, Ukraine’s Air Force sees securing these fighters as essential to the defense of their nation, as they offer advanced systems that are on par or superior to those of the Russian Air Force.
According to Ukraine, their pilots could be trained and ready to fly these American jets into combat after just two or three weeks of training, but the truth is, flying the F-15 or F-16 into the fight takes a whole lot more than a moderately trained pilot.
While it may not take long for these aviators to learn how to execute the fundamentals of flying in a new cockpit, combat is a test like few others. Even for American fighter pilots, who spend more time in their cockpits than pilots hailing from most other nations, survival in combat is never assured, let alone victory.
Unfortunately for Ukraine’s Air Force, this is one request that will very likely be denied.
Ukraine believes better Western fighters could give them the edge they need to dominate portions of Ukraine’s airspace. They have good reason to suspect NATO fighters would do the trick.
The F-16 was originally meant to be a lightweight air superiority fighter that has since demonstrated a great deal of value as a multi-role platform.
The F-15 comes with an even more impressive reputation, and in fact, the Eagle is the most dominant air superiority fighter of its era (and perhaps others). With a reported combat record of 104 air victories and zero losses, there is not another fighter in the sky with the proven dogfighting chops of the F-15.
It takes at least six weeks to help trained American fighter pilots transition to the F-16 from another jet
Because Ukraine’s pilots are accustomed to the cockpits of Soviet-era fighters, it would take some real getting used to before they could effectively fly the F-16 or F-15 in combat.
Ukraine claims they could make the transition in a matter of just two or three weeks, and while this seems extremely unlikely, it may be feasible given the nation’s difficult circumstances.
The U.S. Air Force actually already has a course designed to train existing fighter pilots to get behind the stick of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, and although these pilots are already accustomed to American fighters (as Ukrainian pilots would not be), the course still takes over six weeks.
It’s possible that Ukrainian pilots could considerably condense this training course, but the chances that they would leave their crash course with a high degree of competence in their new aircraft seems unlikely.
But importantly, Ukraine has never operated these aircraft, so simply landing a few of these jets on a Ukrainian airstrip and tossing them the keys wouldn’t be enough to actually fly these jets in combat.
The U.S. Air Force uses 25 maintainers for every ONE tactical aircraft
While all fighter jets are not created equal, there is one universal truth when it comes to operating them: it takes a ton of maintenance, even for aircraft like the F-16 that is renowned for being fairly inexpensive to operate.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb, each F-16 requires about 16 hours of maintenance for every one hour spent flying.
It’s not a simple matter of having a few well-trained aircraft mechanics standing by to fix whatever ails a jet either, these are highly specialized pieces of equipment that require equally specialized training to maintain, let alone repair.
According to the U.S. Air Force’s 332 Air Expeditionary Wing, which operates both the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16C Fighting Falcon (among other aircraft), it takes a ratio of 25 maintainers to every one aircraft to keep their equipment in good working order.
Of course, it could be done with fewer techs, but hard combat flying will undoubtedly require more maintenance and repairs than standard training flights might.
“It’s a constant double and triple checking,” said Senior Airman Griffin Langiano, maintenance crew chief. “There are so many moving parts, and if you don’t take your time it’s easy to miss something. We have to be 100 percent positive the plane is mission capable.”
This includes individuals conducting pre-flight, thru-flight, and post-flight safety checks (thru-flight means landing to re-arm before departing to continue a mission), as well as several more specialized groups called “back shops.”
These “back shop” maintainers specialize in more specific skill sets like maintaining or repairing weapons, guidance or propulsion systems. These jobs aren’t just essential to continuing air combat operations, they’re serious business. A single misplaced socket or poorly secured panel could result in a deadly crash.
“(Maintainers) have more responsibility than the majority of Airmen in the Air Force,” explained 1st Lt. Tate Ashton, 391 Fighter Squadron Sortie Generation Flight commander.
“Nobody else is held to a higher level of accountability than they are.”
Flying a fighter in combat means continuously pushing it to the limits of capability, and that means placing the airframe and other components under a huge amount of stress.
Keeping these jets in flying condition takes a great deal of training. In order to become an Air Force tactical aircraft maintenance technician, Airmen must complete five advanced training courses at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas.
It takes each technician about 18 months to complete their job-specific training (on top of things like basic training) before they’re sent to their fleet units where they’ll continue to undergo on-the-job training until they’re fully proficient at their jobs.
These highly-trained maintenance techs then rely on specialized equipment and a massive logistical enterprise to keep them supplied with the materials they need to maintain their aircraft.
This would require new infrastructure Ukraine doesn’t already have, from a place to put specialized equipment to a means to get regular shipments of Western parts to Ukrainian airstrips. Again, the goal would be to accomplish all of this without sending NATO troops into Ukraine.
Even if Ukraine could train its pilots to be competent in the F-16 and F-15 cockpits in just a matter of weeks (which, in itself, is extremely unlikely), they could never train enough airframe maintainers in that time. But let’s pretend they could do that too… then they’d still be facing another serious hurdle when it comes to ordnance.
Ukraine would lose a lot of fighters and the war would go on
There is no chance that NATO could provide Ukraine with enough F-15 or F-16 airframes to offset Russia’s massive numerical advantage in the region.
All told, Russia has some 1,500 combat aircraft, making it the second-largest air force in the world. Ukraine began the war with fewer than 100, and now has closer to 50. Providing Ukraine with even dozens of western fighters (which is extremely unlikely) wouldn’t be enough to put them on even footing.
Instead, Ukrainian pilots in jets they only barely knew would fly into combat against Russian pilots who have trained in their own respective aircraft for years.
Then they’d land their fighters on airstrips that would be targetted for repeated missile strikes, where techs and maintainers who only have a few weeks’ training on these platforms would have to turn them around and get them back into the fight extremely quickly, just to do it all again against the same overwhelming odds.
This is a recipe for a lot of downed jets and a lot of dead, injured, or captured pilots.