UK revamps military training with public-private partnership

 - July 16, 2008, 9:12 AM

“Contractorization” may be an ugly word, but for Lockheed Martin and Britain’s VT Group, it is pretty good business. Their joint venture, called Ascent, last month won a £635 million ($1.25 billion) contract to provide the military flying training system (MFTS) for UK armed forces over the next 25 years. During that time, a further £6 billion ($11.8 billion) could be spent on training aircraft, simulators, equipment and services. Today, most British military aircrew are still trained on aging, “round-dial” systems that are quite unsuitable for the age of digital, glass cockpits. 

MFTS is the latest public-private partnership to be concluded by the British government. It is also a further step in the Ministry of Defence’s unprecedented embrace of private industry, which now provides a wide range of operational and support functions that were previously run by uniformed personnel. One of the oldest examples–the Defence Helicopter Flying School–has now been running for nearly 11 years.

According to the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), Baroness Ann Taylor, the MFTS “will bring together the current range of fragmented training schemes into one modern and cohesive program.” Air Commodore Brian Newby, the RAF’s director of flight training, said that the average training time for student pilots will be reduced. “We can become much more efficient. The training information system in the background will be the real glue, managing the aircrew pipeline,” he said.

Newby denied suggestions that by handing over so many responsibilities to commercial industry, student pilots will not inculcate the “military ethos” that a fighting force must embody. In fact, the closer  a pilot gets to the front line, the greater the ratio of military to civilian-employed flying instructors will be, he said.

Ascent’s Minimized Role
Moreover, Ascent’s role as the training system partner has been considerably reduced from that envisioned when the MFTS was first conceived. At last month’s contract signing, it became clear that Ascent is not taking sole responsibility for providing or choosing future training equipment and suppliers. Laurence Bryant, the DE&S team leader for MFTS, said that the MoD will be involved in these decisions, including the important matter of whether Ascent provides, or the MoD buys, the hardware for each part of MFTS. “This is a partnership, not a private finance initiative (PFI),” he explained. (PFIs are also much favored by the British government, because industry contributes all the capital expenditure for designated projects.)

In theory, as the “Tier One” partner for MFTS, Ascent will not be allowed to compete for the “Tier Two” packages within the program. “But we may allow Ascent to bid, if there would otherwise be little or no competition for these packages,” Bryant told AIN. Suppliers for the first couple of Tier Two packages have recently been chosen. Last month, CAE UK was named to supply two simulators worth more than £23 million ($45 million) for the BAE Hawk Mk128 advanced jet trainer. Last Friday, Ascent announced that FR Aviation was the preferred bidder to supply six Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s for the Fleet Air Arm’s (Royal Navy) basic observer course at Culdrose. They will replace obsolete Jetstream T2s.

The supply of the 28 new Hawks for future advanced jet training (AJT) was arranged independently of MFTS, as a direct sale to the MoD by BAE Systems. Deliveries are due to begin soon. The MoD–rather than Ascent–will be awarding a contract to support these aircraft. At present, Babcock provides this service at RAF Valley to the current fleet of ageing Hawk T1 aircraft.  

Advanced Jet Training
However, Ascent will be providing all the classroom training devices for the AJT course, and the design, plus new infrastructure. The value of this “ground-based training environment” (GBTE) package at Valley, and at two more training bases, is included in Ascent’s £635 million fixed-price contract. The balance of that sum represents the payment to Ascent over the next 25 years (expressed in current prices) for its role in MFTS.
 
Bryant explained that the “make or buy” decision for the GBTE packages was assigned to the Tier One partner during the competition phase of MFTS, to encourage big players to bid. The Ascent joint venture was selected in preference to others headed by Boeing/Thales and Bombardier/KBR/ Lear Siegler. But, Bryant added, 85 percent of the predicted value of future MFTS contracts has yet to be awarded, so there will plenty of scope for future competitions. Furthermore, Ascent is running competitions for subcontractors to the GBTEs.

The next major re-equipment decision within the MFTS could be the RAF’s basic trainer. The choice of an aircraft to replace the current Tucano turboprop trainers will be made in 2010, according to Bryant. But there are competing priorities. A fleet of Dominie T1 twinjets at RAF Cranwell provides basic training for all rear crew in the RAF–navigators, mission systems operators, even loadmasters. Based on the original HS125 business jet, the support system for these 40-year old aircraft is “very fragile,” according to Newby.