A coalition of Western countries is eyeing Romania as a possible location to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets, according to a current and a former Defense Department official with knowledge of the effort.
Specifically, the group is working to negotiate a contract to conduct the aircraft training at a site in Romania, said the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss the contours of an agreement that has not yet been finalized. It’s likely that Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-16, would conduct the training, the people said.
Details about the training program have been slow to emerge since President Joe Biden lent his support to the effort last month. The Netherlands and Denmark are leading the multinational training effort, but the partners have not yet settled the question of which countries would provide the aircraft required for training.
European officials would neither confirm nor deny that the proposal to train Ukrainian pilots in Romania is under discussion. A Dutch Defense Ministry spokesperson would say only that the partners are working to establish an F-16 training center in Eastern Europe. But the discussion of which country will donate jets has not yet been settled.
A Lockheed spokesperson pointed to comments by the company’s chief operating officer, Frank St. John, this week that the firm stands ready to train Ukrainian pilots to fly and maintain the F-16s as soon as Western countries agree to send them.
“The delivery of F16s is not at the table now. We are working very hard to start the F-16 training [with Denmark to train Ukrainian] pilots as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said. “Delivery requires a separate decision-making process.”
Denmark’s acting minister of defense, Troels Lund Poulsen, said he hopes to be able to present a “concept” in time for the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, and that the training will begin later this summer.
“The last few weeks I’ve had several opportunities to discuss possible models for training of Ukrainian pilots and support staff for the F-16 jets with my colleagues. I am very pleased to see that the coalition behind training pilots and support staff for F-16 continuously broadens,” he said in a statement emailed Wednesday. “It will be an important strategic step in the long term.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley received a briefing on the group’s progress last week, Austin told reporters during a visit to Brussels, adding that “there’s a lot of work to do.”
Romania’s air force operates a fleet of 17 secondhand F-16s acquired from Portugal, and is buying an additional 32 jets from Norway. However, Bucharest recently approved a plan to purchase the more advanced F-35.
The country plays a critical role in NATO’s air policing mission, an international task force dedicated to continuously patrolling European skies in order to quickly react to airspace violations. NATO countries regularly scramble to intercept Russian aircraft flying in the area.
Asked whether negotiations are ongoing for Ukrainian pilots to be trained in Romania, the country’s defense ministry neither confirmed nor denied that the country is under consideration.
But commenting more broadly, the ministry did say in an emailed statement Wednesday that the country “welcomes the initiative to establish a coalition of NATO Allies to provide training of pilots for F-16s.”
“We reiterate that Romania is working closely with its NATO allies, EU partners, its strategic partners and the leadership of Ukraine to ensure that the Ukrainian nation has the ability to withstand and effectively resist the illegal Russian aggression and occupation of the Ukrainian sovereign territory,” according to the statement.
Along with Denmark and the Netherlands, the training coalition also includes the U.K., the U.S., Portugal, Norway and Belgium. The Ukrainian pilots will first undergo a basic training and language course, overseen by the U.K., before starting instruction on the jets, the British government announced last week.
When asked about plans for Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s this week at the Paris Air Show, Lockheed’s St. John said the company is ready to modify aircraft, provide training or, if necessary, build new F-16s to backfill the jets that will be donated to Ukraine.
Lara Seligman reported from Washington. Lili Bayer reported from Brussels.