Sources to CNN: Ukrainian pilots are in the United States to test-fly F-16 fighters

(CNN) — The United States is working with Ukrainian pilots in the United States to determine how long it will take to train them to fly F-16 fighter jets, three sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

Two Ukrainian pilots are currently at a military base in the United States, where their skills are being tested in flight simulators to see how long it will take them to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including the F-16.

A US military official told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Middle East that the Ukrainian pilots were in Tucson, Arizona, for an “introduction event”, which he described as a “routine activity as part of our military dialogue with Ukraine”.

“The familiarization event is basically a discussion between Air Force personnel and an observation of how the USAF operates,” the official said.

“This event allows us to better assist Ukrainian pilots to become more effective pilots and better advise them on how to develop their own capabilities. The pilots will not fly on any platforms during this event but will use a simulator during parts of their visit,” he added.

The official added that “there are no updates to provide regarding the F-16s to Ukraine” and there are no immediate plans to increase the number of Ukrainian pilots in the United States.

Although there is no indication at this time that flight training is under way, the move indicates that the US has not completely closed the door on providing the F-16s.

Ukraine has been pressing the United States to provide fighter jets, and senior Ukrainian officials have stepped up their public pressure campaign in recent days, arguing that they need the jets to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.

But that pressure was met with skepticism by US and allied officials, who said the planes would be impractical because they require too much training and Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that it could easily shoot down.

When previously asked if the United States would provide the F-16s to Ukraine, US President Joe Biden answered, “No.”

Early in the war, the United States also believed that providing Ukraine with new combat aircraft would risk escalation between NATO and Russia.

In an interview with ABC News in February, Biden said that Ukraine “doesn’t need the F-16s right now,” despite repeated public pleas from Ukrainian officials and growing pressure from Republicans in Congress.

US and European officials have previously told CNN that F-16 fighter jets are impractical in this situation.

Germany last week ruled out delivering fighter jets to Ukraine altogether, while British government officials echoed that sentiment and said they believed it was not practical to send planes to Ukraine.

The Dutch and Polish leaders also seemed hesitant when asked about sending F-16 fighter jets.

On Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Political Affairs Colin Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee that it would take 18 months to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16s, and said that training pilots for that amount of time would be too expensive.

“It’s hard for me to tell any member of Congress or the American people that the best use of this dollar that is being spent right now is on F-16s,” Kahl said at the hearing.

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