By David Roza
Excerpted from Task and Purpose
When the Russian military first invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the world was amazed at how the outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian Air Force held out against its much larger, more advanced Russian adversary. But for one group of American aviators, it was hardly a surprise. After all, they spent the past 29 years training with the Ukrainians and knew the pilots were tougher than experts predicted.
“Over the years I think we misassessed the capability of the Ukrainian Air Force and how they could work with an integrated air defense system,” said Maj. Drew Armey, an F-15 fighter pilot with the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, which, along with the rest of the California National Guard and Air National Guard, has worked with Ukraine since 1993.
“Nobody in the 144th was surprised,” said Col. Robert Swertfager, a fellow F-15 pilot and the operations group commander for the fighter wing. “We know these guys are professionals. They want to be in control of their own destiny, to have the right to self-determination as their own country.”
Swertfager has been to Ukraine about 70 times since 2002 as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, where the militaries of a dozen former Soviet Bloc countries paired with the National Guards of U.S. states. The program started in the early 1990s, and it has since expanded to 93 countries around the world. Despite the bigger scope, the program objective remains helping foreign militaries develop best practices and “helping the nations know how a military works in a democracy,” according to a Department of Defense press release.
In Ukraine, that took the form of swapping ideas in classrooms, flying together, and helping Ukrainian pilots develop their own culture of self-improvement. Often the rules changed about what specific tips and tricks the U.S. could provide based on which U.S. president was in office, but the focus was always on building bonds with Ukraine’s Air Force and helping Ukraine’s airmen be the best they could be.
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