General Serhii Holubtsov says his men can learn to fly western jets in months, dismissing Nato claims that training could take years
March 19, 2023
An American assessment of Ukrainian fighter pilots has revealed they would be ready to fly F-16 jets after fewer than six months of training, their commander has told The Times.
In his first interview since President Putin’s tanks crossed the border last year, General Serhii Holubtsov, chief of aviation of Ukraine’s air force, said that two of his pilots had returned to the country last week after a rigorous assessment by the US military. “They spent three weeks there and were trained on an F-16 simulator how to fly together as two pilots using weapons. The results came out very good: Ukrainian pilots can learn to fly and operate weapons systems on the F-16 in less than six months,” he said.
Some Nato allies had previously thought it would take years to train Ukrainian pilots, who are fighting an armada of more advanced Russian fighters using a small number of antiquated MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft. Last month Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, suggested that a British training programme for Ukrainian pilots would be completed only after the war had finished.
Holubtsov said some pilots could be trained in an even shorter period: “The skills of the pilots were rated extremely highly, and these guys were just average pilots. Every pilot is unique, so there should be an individual training plan. But after this assessment, we can significantly shorten the term depending on the previous experience of Ukrainian pilots. This is great news for us.”
Last month President Biden said the US would not be providing F-16s “for now”, with Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, arguing they “are not a question for the short-term fight”. The results of the assessment may force them to reappraise that view. Last week Poland and Slovakia agreed to send Ukraine Soviet-era Mig-29s, a move ruled out for more than a year because of fears about escalation.
Pressure on Nato to supply more modern jets is mounting. Boris Johnson has called for Britain to provide Ukraine with its Typhoons to “break the ice”, but the Ukrainian military is wary of having to maintain numerous types of aircraft. Ukraine needed a large number of the same type of aircraft with a plentiful supply of spare parts, the general said. “We are not strict about a particular model, but the technical characteristics — if there are other platforms that can hold and use the same ammunition and have the same characteristics [as F-16s], we can use that platform. We’ve focused on F-16s because we know there are more than 4,000 globally — it will be easy to replace them and obtain spare parts,” he said. “Having different types of jets is expensive. We
would like to have one or maximum two types so that maintaining them is reasonable and sustainable. The infrastructure, the training, the ammunition costs a lot of money. It’s not like tanks or armoured vehicles.”
The silver-haired Holubtsov, 51, a career airman who has spent the best part of 33 years in a cockpit, has been living in an underground bunker for more than a year, leaving only to fly the occasional mission. He rejected concerns that western-supplied jets would be quickly destroyed, stating that his pilots were flying 50 sorties a day to deny the Russians use of Ukrainian airspace beyond the frontlines. “We have dozens of different locations and airports to hide and shelter our air planes and we are receiving more western air defence systems to protect our runways all the time,” he said. “We are able to deliver results and do what needs to be done with our Soviet-made jets, so why couldn’t we do the same with more modern aircraft? We will just be much more effective.”
The general has little time to see his wife, two adult daughters and two small granddaughters, but smiled effusively as he talked about his youngest granddaughter, Arina, born in Ukraine four months into the invasion. “They are all still in Ukraine and don’t plan on leaving. They say that as long as we are doing our job, they feel safe.”
Yet the burden of sending pilots up against Russian fighters that outclass and outnumber theirs clearly weighs heavily on Holubtsov’s shoulders. He became sombre, eyes misting over, when he spoke of breaking the news of the loss of young officers to their families. “You don’t need to be in the trenches to see the war, you just have to look in the eyes of a person who is grieving. I am losing some of my best people because of the lack of proper equipment. The sooner we have all the help we need, the sooner we win this war, the more lives we save. I’m grateful for everyone in Britain who cares, for every bit of help provided.”
Over the past year, Russian forces have been documented killing, raping and looting Ukrainian civilians in every area they occupy, piling pressure on Ukraine’s military to recover lost territory through a ground offensive this year.
Effective air cover for advancing columns of Nato supplied armour, such as British Challenger 2 and German Leopard 2 tanks, would prevent unnecessary loss of life, the general said. “The Russians have much longer-range radars and munitions on newer jets. They use a missile with a 200km range to take out our S300 air defences, which have a range of 150km, then 1,500kg guided bombs to attack front line towns like Vuhledar, Bakhmut and Maryinka. If we had F-16s with AIM 120 missiles and a range of 180km, we could push the Russian planes much further back.”
Holubtsov said that modern jets with their longer range were key to protecting lives in cities that had endured a relentless Russian bombardment, because Russian pilots would no longer be able to cross into Ukrainian-controlled airspace. “The territory of Ukraine is so huge, it is impossible to put as many ground air defence systems as is needed to effectively cover it. They need time to reload their missiles, they need to manoeuvre around the country and there are always gaps between them. To cover these gaps we need fighter jets,” the general said.
Holubtsov dismissed arguments that his country’s infrastructure could not be made ready for fast modern jets this year, pointing to a positive assessment of Ukraine’s runways made in 2021 by one of the F-16’s manufacturers, and training exercises in 2018, where American aircraft landed on Ukrainian soil. “American fighter jets, F-15s and F-16s, were using typical Ukrainian military bases. They were taking off, landing easily, without any problems at our bases Myrhorod and Starokostyantyniv. The aircraft were not specially prepared for these runways and these bases are not better than any other air base in Ukraine,” the general said. “The US manufacturer assessed runways on three Ukrainian airbases — Ozerne, Vasylkiv and Starokostyantyniv — and said they can be used for modern fighter jets. They only noted a few improvements could be made — such as smoothing out the runways — and the infrastructure ministry is already working on that. “We understand that of course we need to modernise our airports and logistics but we are ready to do this with our partners.”
The shift to Nato-standard jets was inevitable, Holubtsov said, given that the current Soviet-era aircraft relied on Russian-made parts and weapons. Western-supplied precision weapons such as HARM-88 anti-radar missiles and JDAM guided bombs could not be used properly because their targets needed to be programmed on the ground and could not be switched in the air should the situation change. “Our jets were developed 40 years ago to be part of the Soviet system and they were built to work together with the Russian air force,” he said. “What we need now are the jets that were built to fight the Russians.”
Maxim Tucker was Kyiv correspondent for The Times between 2014 and 2017 and is now an editor on the foreign desk. He has returned to report from the frontlines of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. He advises on grantmaking in the former Soviet countries for the Open Society Foundations and prior to that was Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus. He has also written for The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, Newsweek and Politico.