Support: F-16 Flight Training


December 13, 2023: NATO member and Ukraine neighbor Romania has established an F-16 training facility for Romanian and Ukrainian pilots. Romania currently has 49 F-16s and Ukraine will receive a similar number in early 2024. The facility will train aircraft support personnel as well as pilots. Many NATO countries are in the process of receiving F-35 fighters, which makes their current F-16s surplus and available to sell or donate. Since NATO nations are providing Ukraine with substantial military support, the F-16s are part of that. Russia has nothing like the F-35, or the F-16, and economic sanctions have crippled Russian civil and military aircraft production. Russia only has about a dozen modern, high performance jet fighters for use against Ukraine, out of the 100 or so it started the war with. These have to be used carefully because the Russians can’t replace aircraft losses quickly, if at all.

Romania was the first Black Sea NATO nation besides Turkey to obtain F-16s. Turkey controls the south shore of the Black Sea while two other NATO nations, Bulgaria and Romania control the east coast. The west coast is controlled by Georgia and Russia. The northern coast is controlled by Ukraine, although Russia is trying to permanently take possession of some of the northern Black Sea coastline currently controlled by Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led other NATO nations in the region, especially those with Black Sea coastlines, to upgrade and expand their armed forces. The NATO Black Sea nations are also cooperating on clearing Russian naval mines in the Black Sea. Russia released these mines to disrupt commercial shipping handling Ukrainian imports and exports. Ukrainian is a major exporter of grain

NATO military aid to Ukraine includes a growing number of military combat and support aircraft. All of these trained pilots and maintainers. There are considerable differences in training costs for pilots depending on what type of aircraft they will operate. Transport pilots cost the least. A C-17 four engine jet transport pilot cost $1.1 million to train, and these were the pilots who could most easily shift to being commercial pilots. Other types of transport pilots were somewhat more expensive train. The C-130J four engine turboprop transport pilot training cost $2.5 million because these aircraft often operated from more primitive airbases and under combat conditions. Special purpose transports, like the RC-135, an older four engine jet transport, used for electronic warfare and intelligence tasks cost $5.5 million for pilot training. Aircraft like the RC-135 are equipped to patrol coastal waters, which Ukraine has a lot of.

Pilots for combat jet aircraft are the most expensive to train. The least expensive are F-16 pilots ($5.6 million) with the most expensive being F-22 pilots ($10.9 million). Bomber pilots are more expensive with the older bombers (B-52) more expensive ($9.7 million) than more recent models like the B-1 ($7.3 million). Much of pilot training cost is the expense of taking their aircraft into the air, which is essential (as experience has shown) compared to alternatives like realistic simulators. It was also found that aircraft with better flight control software and more efficient cockpits cut training costs. The best example of this is the F-35 but the trend had been noted in other aircraft when cockpits and flight control software were upgraded.

The air force, and the military in general, have another problem and that is the long tradition of pay based on rank and time in service. This has long been recognized as archaic and inefficient. Commercial firms, even those providing military contractors for combat jobs overseas, pay according to what the market demands. There is a premium on skills regardless of age or rank. For example, a former special forces NCO with lots of combat experience is going to get paid a lot more than a senior infantry officer with limited combat experience. The special forces NCO not only handles a more dangerous job but one requiring superior intelligence and training levels. That can also be seen in what professional athletes get paid versus what support staff and their managers earn. Tech industries also have to face the fact that special, and relatively rare; talent has to be paid the market rate if you want to have the people you need.

The air force, being the most technical of the military services, has long had problems with this issue and nowhere was that more obvious and painful in the relatively new job of operating remotely controlled aircraft (UAVs). In 2018 the U.S. Air Force released a study of using warrant officer ranks for career pilots as part of a solution to the growing pilot shortage. The air force study concluded that the army use of warrant officers for those who prefer to be career pilots, mainly of helicopters, would not work but having officer pilots specializing in flying who could advance up to the rank of colonel (O-6) might. Actually, there was no agreement on what might work but air force leadership agreed something had to be done. Many departing pilots just wanted to fly and current air force leaders do not like the idea of warrant officer pilots even though it works fine for the Army.

The study quoted departing pilots listing why they were leaving and more opportunity to fly was a major factor and would persuade more of them to stay. This usually meant belonging to a combat squadron full time and concentrating on flying. The air force continued to see the problem as one of money and pilots spending too much time away from their home base because of foreign deployments. The study missed the point. The departing pilots were not concerned about rank and were willing to accept the relatively rank-less commercial pilot jobs where pay depended on experience and the number of different skills, different types of aircraft you were qualified to fly. Departing air force pilots wanted that sort of thing in the military and as long as that option was not available, many military pilots continued to leave when their service contracts of four or more years were completed.




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