President Joe Biden informed G7 leaders on Friday that the US will support a joint effort with allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth generation aircraft, including F-16s, a senior administration official tells CNN.
The training is not expected to happen in the US, the official said, and will likely happen entirely in Europe. But US personnel will participate in the training alongside allies and partners in Europe, the official said. It is expected to take several months to complete and the official said the hope is it will begin “in the coming weeks.”
The decision marks a stark turnaround for Biden, who said earlier this year that he did not believe that Ukraine needed the F-16s. The decision to support the training initiative came together very quickly, officials said, and was made by Biden following meetings with G7 leaders in Hiroshima, Japan, where the topic of F-16s to Ukraine was a key point of discussion. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been pushing particularly hard in recent days for countries that have the jets in their stockpile to send them to Ukraine so that the country can better defend itself against Russia’s daily aerial attacks.
“As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” the official said.
The official added that “to date, the United States and our allies and partners have focused on providing Ukraine with the vast majority of the systems, weapons, and training it requires to conduct offensive operations this spring and summer. Discussions about improving the Ukrainian Air Force reflect our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is on his way to the G7 meeting, tweeted to say he welcomed “the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition.”
“This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima,” Zelensky added.
In March, the US hosted two Ukrainian pilots at a military base in Tucson, Arizona, to evaluate their skills using flight simulators and to assess how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including F-16s. Congress set aside money in the 2023 budget for such training.
CNN reported on Thursday that the Biden administration has signaled to European allies in recent weeks that the US would allow them to export F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, sources familiar with the discussions said, as the White House comes under increasing pressure from members of Congress and allies to help Ukraine procure the planes amid intensifying Russian aerial attacks.
A handful of European countries have a supply of US-made F-16s, including the Netherlands, which has signaled a willingness to export some of them to Ukraine. But the US would have to approve that third-party transfer because of the jets’ sensitive US technology.
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said earlier this week that the UK and the Netherlands were looking to form an “international coalition” not only to procure the jets for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots on the 4th genertion fighters, which are more advanced than the Ukrainian fighter fleet.
CNN’s Tim Lister contributed reporting.