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A top official in the California Air National Guard is setting the record straight when it comes to the ability of Ukrainian fighter pilots defying expectations in the sky against Russian sorties, telling Fox News they are “100 percent” capable of flying fourth-generation warplanes. 

“The Ukraine air force has the pilot corps to fly these types of advanced aircraft,” Col. Rob Swertfager said. “The Ukrainian pilots are fantastic. I’ve flown with every air force in Europe – especially their regional partners.” 

“The Ukrainians are so undervalued and under-appreciated. Which is exactly why I think they’re winning the war because everybody underestimated that they were way better than anybody gave them credit for,” he added.

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Ukrainian fighter pilots fly in segment led by “Juice”. Photo by Yurii Kysil.
(Photo by Yurii Kysil)

Washington has responded to the deadly bombardment of Russian airstrikes and heavy artillery in Ukraine by sending the former Soviet state-turned democratic nation billions of dollars worth of equipment, but the Pentagon has all but shut the door on sending warplanes. 

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Leaders of the world’s most sophisticated military have cited concerns over Ukrainian ability and the threat of escalated warfare as chief reasons why they have denied Kyiv’s repeated pleas for modern warplanes like F-16s, F-15s of A-10s.

However, top fighter pilots are taking the war’s politics into their own hands and for the California Air National Guard, this means informing American leaders that Ukrainian pilots are more than capable of flying fourth-generation aircraft. 

The California Air National Guard has held a longstanding partnership with Ukraine and has helped to train its military under a state program since the 1990s.

Swertfager, who has traveled to Ukraine more than 70 times in the last 20 years, has a personal relationship with the Ukrainian air force and told Fox News that he has spoken with his fellow pilots daily since the war began in February.

“I’m the Operations Group Commander for the California F-15 unit. One of my duties is to challenge and evaluate ability to fly combat aircraft. My professional assessment, and I’ve been sharing this with lawmakers this (last) week, is these guys are more than capable of flying our aircraft. 100 percent,” he said. 

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Ukrainian fighter pilots met with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators this week in an attempt to lobby for an upgrade in planes to fight the Russian air force.

Ukrainian fighter pilots met with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators this week in an attempt to lobby for an upgrade in planes to fight the Russian air force.
(Photo by Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A three-way deal to send American F-16s to Poland in exchange for their deployment of Soviet-era MiG-29s to Ukraine was shut down by Washington in March.

Pentagon officials flagged concerns that Moscow would negatively interpret the move as direct NATO involvement in the conflict and could escalate the war beyond Ukraine’s borders. 

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However, some have begun to question the administration’s line of reasoning as the U.S. and NATO allies continue to send sophisticated weaponry like Howitzers, Javelins and Stinger missiles. The U.S. Air Force even created a “Phoenix Ghost” drone specifically designed for Ukrainian needs in its war against Russia. 

“It’s the political decisions being made by the civilian Pentagon leadership, but also in other parts of the Biden administration, that somehow view certain platforms as provocative but others as not,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan. “I just actually don’t agree with that assessment.

“We’re sending Stinger missiles and Javelins, those are taking out helicopters, killing tank commanders. And then we’re sending heavy artillery,” he continued. “What’s the line between letting them defend themselves as something that’s offensive and provocative?”

Sullivan hosted a bipartisan meeting last week with two Ukrainian fighter pilots who traveled from the front lines to Washington to outline their urgent need for modern aircraft to U.S. lawmakers.

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“The Russian air force is still very active in the east and in south of Ukraine,” one fighter pilot who answers under the call sign “Juice” told Fox News.  

Ace Ukrainian pilot known as "Juice," was in Washington D.C last week seeking more help for Ukraine's Air Force.

Ace Ukrainian pilot known as “Juice,” was in Washington D.C last week seeking more help for Ukraine’s Air Force.
(Photo provided by Ukrainian pilot “Juice”)

“Of course, they are not so stupid as during the first weeks [of the war] and they’ve changed tactics, but they’re still deadly,” he said in reference to Russia’s areal bombardment. “They’re sending their attack jets and helicopters at low altitudes through the front lines to attack our war-fighters in the trenches.

“We need to react, we need to intercept them. We need to save the lives of our citizens and ground troops,” he added.

Juice, who was given his call sign while training with the California Air National Guard in 2018 after repeatedly ordering juice instead of alcohol when out with his American comrades, said the Ukrainian pilots could be trained up on modern American planes in a three to six-month period.

Ukrainian pilot "Juice" flies.

Ukrainian pilot “Juice” flies.
(Photo provided by Ukrainian pilot “Juice”)

When questioned about this relatively short training period, Swertfager backed the suggestion and said he would roughly estimate that a four-month training program would suffice.

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“I’ve flown with these guys, multiple, multiple times. And they’re professional pilots,” he said. “They come from a Soviet doctrine, which is much different than ours, but they have adapted as a hybrid in their capabilities.”

Swertfager said the Ukrainian air force has not fully integrated Western or NATO capabilities into their fighting force, nor have they solely maintained former Soviet-era practices. 

“They’re somewhere in between. And this is where I think they get a lot of advantage when they’re fighting the Russians,” he added. “They could, given the opportunity to, excel.”

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