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Pitfalls remain with giving Ukraine modern fighter jets

11th May 2022 - 10:45 GMT | by Norbert Neumann in London

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Fast-tracking pilots training would mean they could fly new jets in six weeks (Photo: USAF/Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan)

It seems appealing to fast-track pilot training by conducting most flights on simulators and omitting certain procedures if the West were to give more modern aircraft for Ukraine’s air force, but it might prove challenging in practice.

While there are no definite plans for NATO allies to send fighter jets to Ukraine, speculation continues as to how Ukrainian Air Force pilots could be trained swiftly if they were to receive F-16s or Typhoons.

The US claimed that it managed to turn 155mm howitzer trainees into instructors rapidly and needed only to pull away a minimal amount of soldiers from the battlefield, but it could hardly do the same with advanced multirole fighter aircraft.

Conversion to a new aircraft usually takes about six months for limited combat readiness. Some veteran pilots claim that, if operational reasons demanded, an experienced pilot could be put in an unfamiliar aircraft in less than two months, with most of the training conducted on simulations.

Although experienced pilots with some virtual training could fly a more modern jet in that short time, the extent of effectiveness achieved is questionable.

IISS senior fellow for military aerospace Douglas Barrie told Shephard: ‘The switch [from simulation to real jet] isn’t ridiculously onerous, but there is a difference. Familiarity makes the pilot effective, or more effective.’

The other important aspect to borne in mind, Barrie said, is whether the Ukrainian Air Force can afford to lose its frontline pilots for six to 12 weeks of training.

The exact number of fast jet pilots serving in the Ukrainian Air Force is not known, but given it experienced an exodus of aircrew in 2019 and 2020, it is certainly not very high.

You can replace an aircraft comparatively “quickly and cheap”, but you can’t replace pilots particularly quickly.Douglas Barrie, IISS senior fellow for military aerospace

Further questions arise when considering the fidelity simulations Kyiv could receive, with the argument that relying on simulations could prepare Ukrainian aircrew to adequately fly non-Soviet era jets.

Some suggest sending pilots VRs and relatively cheap consumer devices could facilitate an accelerated training course — but the costs could be immense.

‘You can replace an aircraft comparatively “quickly and cheap”, but you can’t replace pilots particularly quickly as they are dependent on the training syllabus,’ Barrie said. ‘To take a cadet to a level where they are combat-capable it takes six months to five years depending on which air force you’re in.’

Without sufficient training for the new jets, Ukraine could risk its trained pilots’ lives in a more modern aircraft whereas they are more than competent in the MiG-29s, Su-24s, Su-25s and Su-27s they currently fly.

RAF Typhoons conducting fighter integration training in Portugal. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

A balance needs to be struck between the NATO and allied countries’ willingness to provide support and equipment that are effective in the immediate term and in imposing a burden on the Ukrainian armed forces.  

Assuming that the issues above are addressed, there is still an important, sometimes hugely overlooked or simplified aspect of this dilemma.

Barrie said that switching from a Soviet aircraft to a Western combat aircraft is just as big a jump for ground maintenance crews as for pilots — if not a wider gap.

‘So to me, the long pole in the tent is not so much converting the aircrew but the training of the ground personnel and having the kind of logistics and support maintenance capabilities in the country that will allow you to operate these aircraft at a tempo that is required,’ he said.

If something significant breaks or a more sophisticated part needs maintenance without a ground support staff, the Ukrainian Air Force would be left with a few pieces of very expensive metal lying around in its hangars.

There are ample questions to address, not least whether the West will give any fighter jets to Kyiv. If that were the case, and the conflict in Ukraine became a frozen war, that would create the space for the country’s air force to appropriately transition to more modern aircraft.

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