Paris Air Show

Contractors Seek To Cut The Cost of Military Flight Training

 - June 17, 2017, 1:00 PM
Discovery Air claims to be the military flight training market leader with a fleet of over 30 aircraft, including these Alpha Jets. [Photo: Discovery Air]

Flying military jets is an expensive business--up to $70,000 per hour for the latest fighters. This has prompted an increasing number of air arms to examine the potential savings by outsourcing some training tasks to private companies. In a major change of policy, the U.S. Air Force wants to contract-out 40,000 flying hours from 2019. The UK is holding a competition for an expanded requirement that could reach 15,000 hours per year.

The tasks include acting as potential enemy fighters in air combat engagements; replicating cruise missile attacks on warships; providing airborne electronic warfare emitters; target-towing; and flying ground attack profiles that can train forward air controllers (FACs) on the ground. Some of these missions are flown by converted business jets, but most are carried out by redundant fast jets that have been sold off by various air arms.

But this approach can lead to governance and certification problems after they are turned over to civilian operators. Recently, two new-generation military jets have been pitched by their makers for these roles – the M346 by Leonardo (Static B6), and the Scorpion by Textron (Static A4).

Three North American companies are leading the way with these contractor-owned, contractor-operated (‘CoCo’) services. Discovery Air Defense Services (DADS) of Canada claims to be the market leader, with a fleet of over 30 fighter aircraft. It bought U.S. provider ATSI (Advanced Training Systems International) in 2013 and renamed it Top Aces (the name under which DADS had earlier traded in Canada). ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company), another U.S. provider, was bought by Textron last year. Draken International remains an independent US provider that was named after the Swedish fighter with which it commenced operations.

Discovery Air has been flying 16 Alpha Jets for the Canadian armed forces for 10 years. It claims to have saved Canada well over $1.5 billion by replacing the 6,000-plus hours of adversary or ‘Red Air’ flying that was previously done by CF-18 Hornets. The pilots flying those Alpha Jets are mostly former CF-18 military flyers. Discovery Air took over a contract to provide similar flying for the German armed forces in early 2015, using seven A-4N Skyhawks.

Earlier this year, the company won a two-year trial contract to fly three Alpha Jets for the Australian Defence Force. Discovery Air’s local partner is Air Affairs Australia, which already specialized air training support services to the Australian Defence Force using Bombardier Learjets and Textron King Air twin turboprops.

Draken International today operates a large fleet of former Israeli and New Zealand A-4s, Aermacchi MB339s and Let L-39s. It is buying 21 Aero Vodochody L-159 advanced training jets that were mothballed by the Czech air force.

Draken has partnered with Canadian simulation specialist CAE to bid for requirements around the world. The relationship was prompted by a new 10-year-plus contract that the Canadian armed forces are tendering. Naturally, incumbent provider Discovery Air is also bidding for this expanded requirement, which is expected to be decided later this year.

ATAC has been operating since 1996 with the U.S. Navy as its main customer. It has 16 Hawker Hunter Mk58s acquired from the Swiss air force; six of Israel Aerospace Industries’s Kfirs acquired from the Israeli government; and four Aero Vodochody L-39ZAs. ATAC Co-founder Jeff Parker said that the need for CoCo services in the U.S. “has grown so fast that we can’t keep up.” In addition, he said, countries in the Middle and Far East are also interested in outsourcing their adversary flying. Parker sold ATAC to Textron Airborne Solutions (TAS) last year.

TAS president and chief executive officer Russ Bartlett estimated that the CoCo market will be worth $5 billion within the next five years. In particular, he noted the U.S. Air Force’s interest in outsourcing much of its adversary flying. This could amount to 3,000 hours per annum at Nellis AFB alone – the home of the “Red Flag” training exercise where ATAC has already provided jets. And despite previous outsourcing to ATAC, the U.S. Navy is still flying over 6,000 hours per year with its own aircraft.

The UK Ministry of Defence is defining an Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) requirement that will combine target facilities, threat simulation and FAC training into a single contractor-provided program. Some of these activities are currently performed by Cobham Aviation Services (Hall 2B Stand E156) providing Dassault Falcon 20s, under a contract that ends in 2019.

Other support flying in the UK is provided by single squadrons of Hawk jet trainers operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy. These Hawks are likely to be retired in the same year. The ASDOT contract is expected to be awarded next year for a start in January 2020, and could be worth up to £1.2 billion over 15 years.

One big question for the ASDOT program is whether to contract-out the RAF’s high-end adversary air combat training flying. Discovery Air has calculated that 25 percent of the 12,000 hours flown annually by the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons are in the ‘Red Air’ role, at a cost of over $260 million according to official UK statistics.

“A contracted service would cost only 25 percent of that,” claimed former RAF Group Captain and fighter pilot Richard Poole, who worked for Discovery Air until recently. Discovery Air would provide six supersonic and agile F-16s equipped with ECM and missile simulation, he added.

Last February, Discovery Air announced a partnership with British defense training services provider Inzpire to bid for ASDOT. Draken International will bid for ASDOT with CAE and UK partner Babcock.

Textron is offering its Scorpion jet plus T-6 Texan turboprops for ASDOT, with UK partners Qinetiq and Thales. Textron Airland said that the Scorpion offered “a fraction of the acquisition and operating costs compared to any other aircraft in its class.” Thales will offer its simulation experience and a range of sensors optimized for situational awareness, threat replication and target training, as well as electronic warfare capability. QinetiQ will manage the integration of sensors and jamming pods into the aerial fleet and certification of the aircraft to ensure compliance with military airworthiness regulations.

British company Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA) was also hoping to bid for ASDOT. It has the advantage of already operating fighter jets that are on the British military register and regulated by the UK Ministry of Defence. It flies ten ex-Swiss Hunter Mk58s and four two-seat Hunter trainers on trials support and threat simulation duties.

The makes of today’s advanced jet trainers all stress the value of the live-virtual-constructive (LVC) technique that artificially multiplies the number of airborne threats, or variously modifies their appearance to represent different real-world type threats. The providers of ‘pre-owned’ CoCo jets are exploring how they can do the same.

The Italian air force flies the M346 on a monthly basis as ‘Red Air,’ according to Leonardo test pilot Giacomo Iannelli. Although subsonic, this jet offers very high turn rates and limit load factors, and an angle-of-attack limit of 30 degrees, he noted, so that “its performance is second-only to afterburning jets.” The embedded training system of the M346 offers simulation of real weapons and electronic warfare, he added. The flying hour cost of an M346 is just one-tenth of a Eurofighter, he claimed.

What about airworthiness and operations oversight of the CoCo companies? In the UK, the Royal Navy’s Hawk squadron was effectively a civilian-run operation until three years ago, when the military reassumed full control. According to squadron commander Lt Cdr Barry Issitt, that was because of unsatisfactory performance by the contractor Serco, and safety questions that were raised by the UK’s new Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA).

Discovery Air is proud of its record – over 60,000 major accident-free flying hours. Brian Bower, a company vice-president, said that some certification authorities had not paid much attention to these types of operation. There had been issues in the US, where the FAA’s Experimental Category applied to the aircraft, and the operators were certified under FAR Part 91. The Pentagon had eventually clarified that it was responsible for the airworthiness of contracted services.

But in Canada, Discovery Air had “a comprehensive memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) and Transport Canada. We’re fully embedded in DND’s flight safety program – there’s no ambiguity,” Bower said. When the Canadian company bought ATSI, it conducted depot maintenance of its A-4N fleet, not just phase inspections, and standardized them. Then there are vanishing vendor issues. Operating former military aircraft is “a lot of work, and you can’t find this out from a book,” he noted.

Group Captain Richard Poole was speaking in 2014 at The Fighter Conference in London, organized by Defence IQ (www.defenceiq.com). Giacomo Iannelli and Brian Bower were speaking at the same event the following year, and Lt Cdr Barry Issitt at the same event in November 2016.