A plan by the UK to train Ukrainian pilots could impact the Royal Air Force’s ability to teach its own recruits, the incoming head of the RAF has indicated.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton admitted that details have yet to be finalised of the announcement by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – made when Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the UK on Monday – to start basic flying training for Ukrainians this summer.
However, he told a committee of MPs on Wednesday that the new programme would not have any immediate effect on the flow of British recruits because of the number of RAF trainees who are already in the system.
The UK’s military flying training is already beset by problems, meaning students are forced to wait months, sometimes years, to pass through the different phases of study, from basic flying to training on a specific aircraft such as a fast jet to reaching the frontline.
Asked by the Defence Select Committee for an assurance that the Ukrainian training scheme would not have an impact on RAF pilot training, Air Chief Marshal Knighton said: “We have not quite worked out yet with the Ukrainians exactly what that is going to look like.
“Until we understand that, we cannot absolutely understand the impact it will have on our flying training system because clearly it will require capacity.”
He continued: “But as the secretary of state [Ben Wallace] has said on several occasions that our priority is to support our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, and so we will need to make a judgement on what impact that might be.
“We have a number of people who have already qualified through the elementary flying training system and who are in that system, so certainly in the short term, I don’t anticipate that having an impact.”
Ukraine has been asking the UK and other partners to give it military Western fast jets. But the UK has said it will not be doing that for now and is instead promising training.
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The development came as the armed forces minister refused to rule out the possibility of more cuts to the armed forces as part of a “refresh” of a blueprint for the size and shape of the army, Royal Navy and RAF.
James Heappey told The Take with Sophy Ridge: “I’m not ruling cuts out, I’m not ruling increases out.”
An updated version of the so-called Defence Command Paper is due to be released by the end of June. It is meant to set out the future structure of the three services as well as Strategic Command.
But with budgets still constrained, the armed forces are under pressure to find new savings to make the books balance despite growing security threats, a war in Europe and an urgent need to regrow military capability after decades of decline.