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US assesses Ukrainian jet-fighter pilots ahead of potential training effort

WASHINGTON—Two Ukrainian pilots are being assessed in the U.S. on how they operate jet fighters to prepare for a potential broader training effort, defense officials said.

Ukraine has repeatedly asked Western allies to provide jet fighters, including American F-16s, to help it repel Russian forces which invaded a year ago. The U.S. has repeatedly played down that prospect and officials said the assessment of the two pilots wasn’t a sign of any change in strategic priorities. But Ukraine is vying to be a future customer for F-16s and the evaluation could potentially lay the groundwork for further training.

The pilots, who now are at a U.S. military installation in Tucson, Ariz., for a dayslong visit, won’t operate U.S. aircraft, defense officials said, but use simulators for flying various types of aircraft to assess their skills, including how they conduct missions using U.S.-provided weapons and equipment. The Tucson facility, where Air National Guard training forces are based, also is where the U.S. trains allied partners on how to operate F-16 jet fighters.

U.S. officials didn’t say whether the Ukrainian pilots will be assessed using F-16 compatible simulators. They noted it also was an opportunity for the pilots to observe how the U.S. Air Force operates. It is the first time Ukrainian pilots have been assessed in the U.S., and defense officials said another 10 pilots could join the evaluation later this spring.

The Pentagon described its work with Ukraine’s pilots, earlier reported by NBC News, as a familiarization event that “allows us to better help Ukrainian pilots become more effective pilots and better advise them on how to develop their own capabilities.”

Ukrainian pilots operate Soviet-era jet fighters and part of the assessment could include determining how to best train them to shift to American aircraft, one defense official said. “We want to understand what is possible,” the official said.

Others stressed the move wasn’t intended to influence or signal any potential decision on providing jet fighters to Ukraine.

“It was approved at a low level and does not represent a strategic step,” said another U.S. military official.

Kyiv, which has been asking for jets for months, has said it needs F-16 aircraft to replace its Soviet-era air force and dominate the skies over Ukraine.

Skeptics of providing jet fighters say they risk a sharp escalation with Russia by handing a weapon to the Ukrainians that could be used to strike deep inside Russian territory, or into the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014. In addition, supplying the planes and training the pilots could take years, they say.

Supporters of the move believe allies need to give Ukraine the most advanced equipment it can, particularly ahead of a long-expected spring offensive, or risk a war that continues years longer in a slog of attrition.

In January, President Biden said no to providing Ukraine with F-16s. In an interview with ABC News the following month, at the one-year mark of the war, the president appeared to open the door slightly, saying Ukraine didn’t need them now.

“There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military, now, to provide F-16s,” the president said, adding: “I am ruling it out for now.”

During testimony last week on Capitol Hill, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, said that Ukraine has asked for as many as 128 U.S. jet fighters and training pilots and providing planes would take 18 months.

“These are the trade-offs that we were making in real time,” he said, noting that it was a question of whether to spend $3 billion on support that would arrive in a year and a half or spend the money on more urgent deliveries of fighting vehicles and missile defense.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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