Will Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme finally take off this year?

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More than 10 years since it was conceived, will 2008 be the year that the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme finally takes off?

After another disappointing 12 months in the history of the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme, questions continue to be asked over whether the more than decade-old initiative will ever succeed in putting wheels on tarmac.

Conceived in 1997 and also referred to as Eurotraining, the proposed 30-year AEJPT project was intended to deliver a common syllabus of advanced and lead-in fighter training to 300 student pilots from 12 partner nations per year from a start date of 2010. But lengthy periods of frustrating inactivity have seen the potential number of participating countries reduced to nine, while the shrinking size of many air forces has cut potential trainee numbers to nearer the 200 level.

Slow progress

It is four years since the completion of a feasibility study into the multinational Eurotraining initiative, and approaching two years since the signature of a European Staff Requirement to advance the project from the concept stage. But a memorandum of understanding to launch work on a pre-contract phase has so far failed to materialise, having missed a target date of October 2006.

 m-346

The M-346 remains favourite to deliver the Eurotraining syllabus, despite a recent lack of urgency

But despite its often painfully slow progress to date, signs have emerged that the AEJPT system could finally be set to gather momentum, with one senior programme official believing that an MoU could be signed by mid-year, enabling the scheme to deliver initial operating capability around 2015.

"There is an urgent need to sign," says Col Wolfgang Luttenberger, AEJPT steering committee member and deputy head of the Austrian air force, who adds that the subject should be discussed anew by participating European air chiefs during May's Berlin air show. Other backing nations are Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, while Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland hold observer status.

Luttenberger says eight of the full partner nations are believed to be ready to sign a deal, with Austria, Belgium and Sweden already having inked an initial agreement. However, he warns that a lack of urgency continues to hamper progress. "There is no one country driving the programme at the moment, and that pressure is missing," he says. "We had it two years ago, and had significant progress."

Italy was previously a particularly vocal supporter of the AEJPT scheme, with its interests linked closely to the proposed supply of Alenia Aermacchi's twin-engined M-346. But with a first production order for 15 of the aircraft having been secured last year to support the Italian air force's LIFT activities from 2011-12, this momentum has been lost. However, the transonic type remains the lead candidate for Eurotraining if the project advances as planned, with Luttenberger expecting the advanced jet trainer to be capable of removing an estimated 35h of training time from operational conversion units.

If performed over the coming months, a full series of MoU signatures would launch a pre-contract phase lasting up to four years, with key short-term tasks to include the appointment of a management committee to oversee the selection of an expected two European training bases, down from an original three, and to decide on the level of contractor involvement in running the system. A high level of partnership is envisaged, possibly up to a fully contractor-run private finance initiative.

Although earlier assessments have concluded that, of eight candidates, Portugal's Beja air base is the only site capable of meeting all syllabus requirements, Luttenberger believes that using one facility each in northern and southern Europe would provide a wider training experience for participating nations.

A possible reduction to 200 student pilots per year would increase training costs by around 9% per individual, says Luttenberger, although several nations - namely France, Germany and Italy - are interested in possibly also sending weapon system operators through part of the training system. Vitally, the steering committee expects the cost of training a student to be significantly lower than existing mechanisms such as the NATO Flying Training in Canada scheme.

The pending pre-contract phase will eventually be followed by a deal for the scheme's development, production and in-service support activities. Most system requirements would come on-stream between 2015 and 2020, with IOC to be declared on the availability of the first 15 aircraft.

But the AEJPT project faces wider challenges, with Italy's acquisition of the M-346 and Greece's urgent need to replace its Rockwell T-2 Buckeyes with a new fleet capable of meeting an IOC target during 2010 (see table, left). Europe is also awash with nations offering interim training services using upgraded or soon-to-be modernised jet trainers that could meet requirements for several years, and in some cases operate well beyond the revised start point for AEJPT services.

Other participants have unique training requirements that could be hard to meet using the collaborative model. Sweden has performed jet-only training since 1987 with the Saab 105 and encountered an average annual attrition rate of just 3%, so could be reluctant to compromise on its proven training philosophy. With its current jet trainers to retire in 2015, Stockholm is assessing a range of future options, potentially including the wider use of Saab's JAS 39 Gripen to support its selection and conversion process.

Multinational training

Nations can also now choose between a joint French-Belgian system using Dassault-Breguet AlphaJets, Northrop F-5Ms flown at Spain's Talavera air base, or from next year gain access to a modified fleet of up to 35 BAE Systems Hawks to be operated from the Finnish air force's Kauhava air base. Other Hawks could be used to provide multinational training under the UK's pending Military Flying Training System deal, although third-party instruction with its Royal Air Force has recently been linked directly to export sales of aircraft including the Hawk 132 to India and the Eurofighter Typhoon to Saudi Arabia.

Italy is also offering places with its 61st training wing at Lecce, which will eventually use Aermacchi MB339CDIIs for advanced instruction and the small batch of M-346s for the LIFT course. The latter type will be used to provide more tactical training, and to remove work from the OCU level, says Col Antonio Coppola from the air force's training command, who adds: "The benefits will be enormous."

Across the Atlantic, several AEJPT partner nations continue to make use of the US-based Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training and NFTC programmes, enabling them to avoid making hard choices closer to home for the near term. With the ENJJPT system currently to continue until at least 2016 and Ottawa already studying the future direction of its NFTC programme and Canada Wings multi-engine and rotary aircrew school, an over-capacity of international training places could encourage some nations to walk away from the Eurotraining dream.

If progress during 2008 proves to be as frustrating as last year, fears for the future of the AEJPT scheme could become reality, potentially to the detriment of multinational co-operation a vital capability for air forces participating in coalition operations such as those continuing in Afghanistan and Iraq.