UK armed forces pilot training is finally poised to undergo radical transformation following last week's award to the Ascent consortium of the first element of the Military Flying Training System contract potentially worth £6 billion ($11.7 billion).
The £635 million private-public deal covering advanced jet training (AJT) on BAE Systems Hawk 128s is part of a 25-year framework contract that will encompass more than 20 aircrew training disciplines from elementary level upwards, processing pilots and rear crew for all fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft flown by the UK services.
The contract is with Ascent, a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and VT Group. It represents a highly ambitious attempt by the Ministry of Defence to strike a long-term partnership with an industry heavyweight that preserves an element of competition for future training service and equipment contracts, and ensures that the aircrew pipeline can adapt to the changing needs of the front line.
The MFTS contract abandons the traditional "big bang" approach by enabling a complex system to be acquired incrementally. The stakes are high because it is being held up as a shining example of the MoD's commitment to innovative procurement, and its desire to eliminate the delays and cost escalations that have plagued other major projects.
Under the MFTS model the MoD will provide airfields, fuel and instructors. Ascent will manage the overall system, deliver the training capability, implement a training management information system and oversee the procurement of aircraft and simulators.
While the structure of the deal is controversial, no-one disputes that the UK's training system is in urgent need of overhaul.
Laurence Bryant, the MoD's MFTS integrated project team leader, says that air force, army and navy aircrew training has been "too fragmented", preventing the realisation of the "full benefits of the synergies that we could leverage through the coherent management of the whole.
"Our strategy for UK MFTS has been to blend skills through a contractual partnership between the MoD and industry. The former brings the military knowledge of flying training, and industry brings the technological and commercial experience to deliver benefits through holistic and long-term management of the system," he adds.
Another driver for change has been the fact that the bulk of the UK's training assets - many of which are 40 or more years old - are rapidly approaching obsolescence because they lack glass cockpits and modern mission management systems.
"If we did nothing we would need to rely more and more on moving the teaching of aircrew onto frontline aircraft," says Bryant, adding that this pushes up costs and impacts on operations.
"So, in conjunction with our partner, we have set about producing an entirely new system where much of the training can be delivered on more effective and efficient platforms which are much more relevant to the frontline aircraft," says Bryant. "We have designed a training system that can be managed more effectively in order to reduce the time it takes to train aircrew - one of the biggest of the cost drivers."
Ascent managing director Fred Ross says the organisation -named preferred bidder for MFTS in November 2006 - is "in full force and ready to deliver on our commitments". He expects aircrew training to begin in late 2009, and "as the 25 years go on we want to field the latest and greatest platforms".
It will be several years before the full system is up and running. The AJT element covers provision of simulators, training devices and mission planning systems, together with classrooms and aircraft hangars at RAF Valley in Wales.
"The rest of it is a service-based partnership." says Bryant. "It allows us to work over the next 25 years with Ascent to set up an annual training programme against which Ascent will raise or lower its resource input." Next to come on line, late next year will be a basic observer training course for the Royal Navy. Meanwhile, bids are being evaluated for the replacement of the navy's nine Jetstream T2 rear-crew trainers with six new aircraft by March 2010.
A decision on upgrading or replacing the Royal Air Force's 56 Shorts Tucano T1 trainers will be taken in 2010, after which the future of the service's 94 Grob G115E Tutors will be decided.
Air Commodore Brian Newby, the MoD's director of flying training, rejects the notion that MFTS represents a "one size fits all" approach. "It is tailoring very much to the needs of each of the three services," he says.
"We are not hellbent on just reducing training time. Indeed in some aircrew pipelines it may be that they remain slightly longer in the training system but when they come out they're a much better, more qualified and well-trained product to go straight to the front line," he says.
"Overall what they won't see is what's going on in the background, which is the management information system which will sneakily get them through the system as quickly as possible, or to the right place at the right time, and that's where the real glue for the holistic system is. I guess what they will see is less time waiting between courses and better equipment."