Scholz: F-16 pilot training a message to Russia, not game changer for now

G7 Summit in Hiroshima

By Andreas Rinke and John Irish

HIROSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Potential allied training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets were a message to Russia not to expect to succeed in its invasion of Ukraine even in a prolonged conflict, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday.

Kyiv has not won commitments for delivery of the planes, but President Joe Biden and senior U.S. officials told G7 leaders on Friday that Washington supports joint allied training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s.

The issue of Ukraine acquiring and using the advanced fighter jets is a delicate challenge for the G7, which has gradually stepped up its support for Kyiv in the 15-month-old war but is wary of provoking Moscow too far.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that Western countries would run "colossal risks" if they supplied Ukraine with F-16s, TASS news agency reported.

"The training of the pilots is a longer project," Scholz told reporters before leaving the G7 summit in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. "The U.S. has not finally decided what stands at the end. The project has a message for Russia: Russia cannot count on winning if it bets on a long war.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his country would work with the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark "to get Ukraine the combat air capability it needs."

Training on the U.S.-made jets will take place in Europe and take time, U.S. officials have said, estimating at least 18 months was needed for training and delivery.

A French military official briefing reporters at the G7 was cautious about the process, saying that in the case of France, the offer was for basic pilot training.

Discussions with Kyiv were ongoing and no Ukrainian pilots were now being trained in France, the official said.

France does not have F-16s, only French-made Rafale warplanes and previous-generation Mirage 2000 jets.

The official said training a person from scratch to operate a NATO-made warplane could take as long as four years, while an experienced pilot used to Ukrainian jets would need four to nine months.

"It's not the immediate priority for Ukraine. We are in a counteroffensive stage and this training won't be ready in the coming weeks, but for the long term," the official said.

The official said talk of F-16s was grabbing headlines, as the issue of German-made Leopard tanks had done before, while insisting the current request was just for training.

"It's the logo to show the initiative. It's an initiative to train pilots without putting a plane behind it," he said.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and John Irish in Hiroshima; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and William Mallard)