Fast-jet pilot training in the UK has been thoroughly modernized, thanks to the introduction of new simulators, courseware and the BAE Systems Hawk T.2 trainer. Ascent, the contractor that is taking over the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS), says the new set-up is “affordable, and demonstrably good value for money.” Still, there are grumblings from those opposed to the commercial provision of British military flying training, on either philosophical or practical grounds.
Ascent is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin (Chalet D10/OE8) and Babcock, the British engineering and facilities services company. It won the 25-year public-private partnership MFTS contract in 2008, and immediately placed orders with CAE for two Hawk T2 simulators. Ascent based itself in Bristol, next to No. 22 Training Group, Royal Air Force (RAF).
The two entities worked together to completely redesign the service’s advanced jet training. The new Hawks–28 of them–are provided by a direct contract from the UK Ministry of Defence to BAE Systems (OE11–FIVE). The first four students to take the new course at No. 4 Flying Training School (FTS), RAF Valley, graduated in June 2013. Another 10 have followed from two more courses since then.
During a visit to RAF Valley last year, AIN was shown the new facilities that Ascent has provided. A two-story building houses the two full simulators (which are linked), plus “electronic classrooms” containing six flight training devices (FTDs) and 10 desktop training stations (DTTs). The brief/debrief facilities and mission-planning aids are also thoroughly modern. All flight manuals are electronic. The shiny, black-painted new Hawks are kept in a new hangar that adjoins the new “schoolhouse.”
Equally important, though, has been the “root-and-branch” overhaul of the syllabus. Taking advantage of the new Hawk’s glass cockpit, which provides sensor and missile simulation, the new course downloads a significant portion of fast-jet training from the RAF’s Operational Conversion Units (OCUs) to No. 4 FTS. “Real savings can be achieved here, since the cost per flying hour of a Typhoon combat jet is 10 times that of the Hawk T2,” said Al Shinner, the Ascent station manager at Valley.
Further cost savings have been achieved by shifting the proportion of hours flown versus simulated. It’s now about 120 hours each on a course that lasts 49 weeks. The ratio of air to simulated hours varies according to the phase of the course. Instrument flying is 80 percent simulated, whereas air-to-air combat is 90 percent flown.
The Hawk T2 comes with HOTAS controls, GPWS, radar altimeter, datalink and Fadec, while it can simulate other combat aircraft systems such as missiles, radar, radar warning receiver and chaff/flare dispensers. The aircraft can be air-refueled and has provision for night-vision goggles (NVGs), although this capability has not yet been taken up in the training at Valley. Adversary combat training can be practiced in two-ship Hawk training sorties. “Through the datalink, we can simulate radars, so one aircraft can be a Flanker one day, and a Fulcrum the next day,” Shinner explained. Likewise, simulated threats, such as SAM firings, can be generated, either during the mission planning, or while airborne.
Shinner said that since the new course was introduced, the ‘airborne failure rate” has dropped dramatically to “less than 0.5 percent.” This is the measure of whether a student met the training objective for that particular sortie.
To emphasize the “downloading” strategy, Shinner described the final training flight of the course. During this, a Paveway IV “smart bomb” attacks a time-sensitive target. The sortie is opposed by enemy interceptors that are countered by AMRAAM firings. The pilot must fly low-level into the target area and interact with a friendly AWACS. “It’s at least as realistic as an OCU sortie. I think we’ve doubled the standard of student that graduates here,” he said.
The new system holds a “Secret” clearance so that this specific type of weapons instruction can be conducted. But the core course at No. 4 FTS is classified “UK Restricted,” with only “generic” weapons simulated. This will allow the RAF and Ascent to take in students from foreign air forces, if that is required in the future for defense diplomacy or revenue reasons. In fact, there is spare capacity at No. 4 FTS that was not originally anticipated. After Ascent began work on the contract, the RAF combat jet fleet was cut in the 2010 defense review. The RAF now requires only 30 to 35 new fast-jet pilots per year. Shinner said visitors to No. 4 FTS from U.S., European and Middle East air forces had been “most interested” in the new regime at Valley.
Like many of Ascent’s 120 employees, Shinner is ex-RAF. The former qualified flying and weapons instructor (QFI) and Tornado pilot said the company aims “to retain the RAF quality and ethos.”
Earlier this year, there was some discussion on a UK online forum for pilots, claiming that training courses at Valley had been temporarily halted. The online posts spoke of “poor morale” and “insufficient qualified instructors.” Two applicants for employment as instructors at Ascent complained that the salaries offered were insufficient. “Those interviewed were expected to fund their employment from their service pension,” one of them claimed.
In response, Ascent managing director Paul Livingston told AIN: “A ‘reset plan’ was enacted to put a full cadre of RAF QFIs in No. 4 FTS with the right mix of postgraduate qualifications. Since then, training has resumed and all courses are on or ahead of schedule.”
In fact, Ascent provides only the ground instructors at Valley, while the RAF continues to provide the QFIs. Shinner noted last year that there are ongoing discussions about Ascent taking over that responsibility. “As a partnering program, we are always looking at ways of working more closely and helping each other where we can,” Livingston told AIN recently. The RAF’s Central Flying School (CFS) sets the standards and accredits each of the Ascent instructors, Shinner noted.
Privatized provision (or “contractorization”) of defense services has inevitably been controversial in the UK. With respect to the MFTS, one online critic spoke of “the little things that would be impossible to capture in a contract, but which are the glue that holds the system together.”
The government’s position is that without such contracts it could not afford to update defense capability. “MFTS will deliver improved value for money with about £1 billion saved over the life of the program,” claimed Sir Barry Thornton, a former head of No. 22 Training Group in the RAF, who subsequently joined Ascent as managing director (he resigned in 2012). “It is the only way we will get the training system modernized,” Thornton added.