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The UK's Military Flying Training System could provide high-quality training for the next 25 years, but there are pitfalls to be avoided

The UK's Military Flying Training System (MFTS) programme is beginning to heat up with Lockheed Martin's formation of a team to bid for the overall programme management role - the so-called training systems integrator. Within the next six months or so the Ministry of Defence should issue invitations to negotiate. The eventual winner will provide an initial service from April 2007.

MFTS, however, is far more complicated and bolder than almost all other UK defence procurements. Not only will it be acquired under the private finance initiative (PFI), it will also encompass the gamut of UK military training: the three services, pilots, navigators and "rear-crew", from post-selection screening to operational conversion unit (OCU) entry.

There are inevitably issues with handing over the entire training system to a private contractor, that in turn will have to manage a large number of subcontractors providing not only trainers, but personnel, airfield operation services and the other aspects of running an air force and its infrastructure.

There is the problem of instilling military ethos in trainees from the beginning of instruction, and not relying on the British Army, Royal Air Force or Royal Navy to give its new aircrew a crash course once they get to the OCUs.

There is also the need to ensure that the output standards from the training system match the required OCU input standards. With the cost of a frontline fighter flying hour being about 10 times that of an advanced jet trainer, which in turn is three to six times more expensive than a basic trainer, it is vitally important - if MFTS is to be financially viable and the UK armed forces are not to be saddled with additional training costs - that there is no need to provide remedial instruction at the OCU.

There are issues, as with every procurement programme, but there is also plenty of evidence to suggest MFTS can be highly successful. Much of the UK's flying training system is already supplied under some form of contract - Hunting and VT Aerospace between them deliver elementary flying tuition to all three armed forces; helicopter training is provided by the tri-service Defence Helicopter Flying School run by Bristow and FR Aviation; maintenance and support of the RAF's Shorts Tucano T1s and BAE Systems Hawk T1s are contractorised, with companies required to provide a given number of serviceable aircraft on the flightline. Multi-engine training and simulators are also provided by contractors.

And these deals, following early teething troubles in some cases, all seem to work well. The trick will be to transfer to private management the entire system, not just elements.

Another sign that MFTS is achievable is the Bombardier-operated NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) programme, which provides basic, advanced and fighter lead-in training to the Canadian Forces and those of other countries. Bombardier, for now, also provides the Canadian Forces elementary, multi-engine and rotary-wing training.

A tour of the NFTC facilities underlines the benefits of contractorised training - facilities to a far higher standard than any government-funded programme could provide. There are also new aircraft on the flightline better matched to the frontline fleet than would otherwise be the case. The fleets are smaller, but commercial practices mean utilisation is higher. This in turn reduces the initial cost of acquiring the assets and improves the efficiency of the system once it is up and running.

The mismatch between the frontline and training aircraft is a prime driver behind MFTS. The Hawk and Tucano have cockpits that lag behind the Eurofighter Typhoon and other glass cockpit aircraft. In addition, the remaining service life of the Hawker Siddeley Dominie T1 navigator trainer and BAe JetstreamT1 multi-engine trainer is short. MFTS provides the potential to replace these aircraft quickly and smoothly without the normal complications of defence procurement.

The critical path in the MFTS procurement will be the transfer of risk to the commercial sector and ensuring that the winning company is sufficiently rewarded for taking on the business, but still providing savings to UK plc.

This will partly be achieved by innovative contracting between MoD and the winning bidder. At the same time, the temptation to wring every drop of blood from the training systems integrator must be avoided. If not, MFTS could become an expensive failure, and if MFTS fails it is possible that the armed services could be left with a gaping training chasm.

Get it right and MFTS will provide efficient, quality training for the next 25 years.