Ukrainian Pilots Visit U.S. To Lobby for Fighter Jets

A U.S Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 555th Fighter Squadron takes flight at Aviano Air Base, Italy, October 24, 2019. The unit performs air and space control and force application roles of counterair, strategic attack, and counterland including interdiction and close-air support in support of the joint, NATO, and combined operations. [U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ericka A. Woolever]

Ukraine has stepped up pleas for U.S. fighter jets, as two of the country's top pilots left combat with Russia to lobby Washington, D.C. lawmakers.

The pilots, who go by callsigns "Juice" and "Moonfish" to protect their identities, say U.S. fighter jets would help level the technological playing field for the Ukrainian Air Force as the Russian invasion enters its fourth month. 

The intensified lobbying campaign comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed legislation to allow the U.S. to train Ukrainian fighter pilots to fly McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagles and General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons.

"Ukrainian Air Force pilots are ready to start training on F-15 and F-16 combat jets," said Defense of Ukraine on Friday. "We want to protect our people and rid our skies of Russian invaders."

While the U.S. initially supported refreshing Ukraine's fighter fleet though a fighter aircraft swap among NATO countries, the proposal was scrapped and aid refocused on supplying other air defense measures, such as combat drones, heavy artillery, and ammunition.

"If we're talking about air-to-air superiority, basically the Russians have obvious technical advantages over our fighter jets," "Moonfish" told CNN. "The numbers say that providing us with the U.S.-made fighter jets would make us at least matching them, or, I believe, even more advanced," he said.

"On the other hand, providing those jets, we see it as a very important thing to protect Ukraine from further escalation from Russia. We think that those are the tools that make Russia not invade again," he added.

Ukraine's aging fleet of fighters includes Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoots, Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers and Russian-made Mikoyan MiG-29s, which are being kept airworthy with leftover parts donated by other countries. In April, for example, a shipment of parts believed to be provided by Poland allowed the air force to return 20 Mig-29s to service, Forbes reported.

U.S. supplies of heavy artillery, such as Stinger missiles, have been effective in low-level air defense, but the Ukrainian Air Force needs more modern fighter jets, according to the pilots.

"If you are engaging with a Russian fighter, face-to-face fight, I wouldn't even find him on the radar screen [by the time] he’s already launched a missile," "Juice" told Fox. "It's almost a suicide mission to intercept them."

Monday, as President Joe Biden attended the G7 Summit in Germany, the White House announced it was preparing a new military aid package for Ukraine's military.

"I can confirm that we are, in fact, in the process of finalizing a package that includes advanced air defense capabilities.  I won’t get into the details of the system," national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters, adding, "we do intend to finalize a package that includes advanced medium- and long-range air defense capabilities for the Ukrainians, along with some other items that are of urgent need, including ammunition for artillery and counter battery radar systems."

Fighter Training Bill

Earlier this month, Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pennsylvania) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), both U.S. Air Force veterans, proposed a bill calling for the training of Ukrainian fighter pilots on F-15 and F-16 platforms.

"Because this conflict continues to rage on, we need to rethink our long-term strategic planning to help our Ukrainian allies—this includes training pilots on additional aircraft that might become available to them," Houlahan said. "It’s simple: should our military decide to transfer aircraft, we need their pilots to be ready to utilize them immediately. Our bipartisan effort will ensure that training happens."

Ukrainian defense officials praised the bipartisan initiative. "Our Air Force is ready to learn how to operate NATO-style aircraft. infantry and artillery have already proven that we are fast learners," it said.

Workforce numbers aren't an issue, according to "Moonfish," who said Ukraine currently has more pilots than fighter jets. The country's more advanced pilots could likely spool up to operate the F-16 platform in "just a few days," he told Defense One.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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