According to an old military maxim, it is essential to “train as you fight”, if an armed service is to remain effective under the toughest of operating conditions.
By the UK’s own admission, its pilot training system was failing to deliver on multiple fronts at the turn of the century. Students were spending too long passing through a pipeline with frequent blockages, and which was also failing to fully prepare them for the advanced types they were to fly on the frontline.
As was often the case around that time, the Ministry of Defence’s proposed solution was controversial, as it involved embracing a traditional foe: industry. A “training system partner”, trusted with every detail of expected student numbers and output standards, would read the tea leaves and select, acquire and support new aircraft to replace its antiquated fleets.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple in reality. The MoD answered part of its own exam question by ordering 28 BAE Systems Hawk T2 advanced jet trainers a full two years before contracting Lockheed Martin/Babcock International joint venture Ascent Flight Training for the rest of its Military Flying Training System (MFTS).
A recent National Audit Office report details the consequences, and how Ascent struggled to create a training syllabus for a type that it had not selected, and for which few “subject matter experts” existed. Things came to a head when training was halted for several months, the manual was rewritten with Royal Air Force help, and a shortage of instructors tackled.
That feels a long time ago now, with the Valley-based aircraft of the RAF’s 4 Sqn delivering solid results and all speaking of a harmonious partnership now being enjoyed with Ascent. More must be done to get the best out of the new-generation Hawk, but that will happen.
But a significant new test for this upliftingly positive relationship is looming large, with the remainder of the MFTS infrastructure yet to be ordered. A delayed award is expected later this year for the delivery of a trio of new fixed-wing designs, to be followed soon after by two new helicopter models. That means five types to be ordered, built and certificated for military operation within three years, with little or no opportunity to further extend the use of legacy kit.
Many other air forces have visited RAF Valley and expressed envy at the standard of equipment now available to its students. If the UK has learned from its mistakes and achieves what is expected through the remainder of the MFTS renewal process, the template could be replicated around the world.