The UK is poised to announce the winner of its Military Flying Training System competition. We look at the prospects for the three contenders

The UK Ministry of Defence could be within days of naming the winning team in a pivotal contest to deliver its entire air crew training for the 25 years from next April. Worth a potential £10 billion ($18.9 billion), the MoD's Military Flying Training System (MFTS) requirement has prompted a battle between three consortia vying to become its so-called training system partner (TSP) for the delivery of services across up to 20 aviation disciplines.

Respectively named Ascent, Sterling and Vector, the consortia are nervously waiting on the imminent announcement of a preferred bidder, following the project's approval for Main Gate funding during a 9 November meeting of the MoD's Investment Approvals Board (IAB). Representing the successful negotiation of the last hurdle before the receipt of ministerial approval for the deal, the move followed the receipt in early August of revised final submissions for the MFTS framework. A selection could possibly be confirmed by the end of this month, say industry sources.

The RAF is looking for a cost-effective way to train Typhoon pilots

To be provided under a series of private finance initiative (PFI) contracts to be let before full service provision is achieved in April 2012, MFTS seeks to streamline a military training system that currently spans from fast jet, helicopter and multi-engine transport pilots to rear crew members such as observers and weapon system operators. In addition to seeking to reduce the MoD's complex inventory of training aircraft from 11 types to perhaps six or seven, and possibly also reducing the number of dedicated training bases from a current total of six, the initiative also seeks to remedy the UK's dysfunctional training system - also referred to as the training pipeline - to get more out of its emerging aircrew.

"Training is now a hotchpotch of systems," says Sterling programme director Vince Smith, adding: "There's no overarching IT system to manage it in its entirety." Accordingly, there are major inefficiencies throughout the legacy set-up, and breaks - or so-called hold time - during the instruction of students are commonplace. Training times for pilots can currently exceed four years before fast-jet students reach the operational conversion unit (OCU) level that will prepare them to use frontline equipment a situation that prompts some to opt for less advanced, but more readily available platform types or breeds disillusionment and cuts short careers with the armed forces.

Industry sources from within the bidding consortia believe it is "entirely feasible" that the time required to train a UK fast-jet pilot could in some cases be more than halved to as little as two years to reach the OCU stage under the new training infrastructure. This, they say, would make it possible for the armed services to get an extra operational tour out of its new personnel, driving down overall training demands.

Scoring the bids

Unusually, the UK's selection of a TSP will not shed immediate light on the future composition of the MoD's training fleet. The Defence Procurement Agency has scored the offers provided by each bidder on the strength of its experience in partnering, the competence of its outline proposal and the technical merits of its solution, with each of these criteria having received marks worth up to one-third of the overall evaluation.

A major consideration during the assessment process has been in studying the draft syllabi provided by the consortia, and in considering the merits of the training management information system (TMIS) proposed by each. Described by Ascent project director Jim Keeler as "the glue that holds the whole project together", the TMIS will be required to perform scheduling work and manage flight line operations at multiple sites, and to show key personnel within the training system whether performance requirements are being met throughout the pipeline.

Initial bids submitted to the MoD in August 2005 outlined industry responses to a set of so-called exam questions to come up with a framework for the MFTS project, and despite a delay of several months this year the project remains on track to meet its original timeline. Indeed, bidders say the delay - caused partly by the MoD's later-than-anticipated award of a production contract for the system's previously selected advanced jet trainer (AJT) - allowed them to conduct additional risk-reduction work that will enable the successful team to swiftly conclude contract negotiations and complete system design activities.

The MoD last month signed a £450 million deal with BAE Systems to acquire another 26 Hawk 128s to meet its future AJT needs, with this building on an earlier award worth around £160 million for an initial two demonstrator aircraft. Pressure from the company - which had initially also been pursuing the TSP contract - led to the Hawk 128 being selected, and the manufacturer is pursuing a lucrative support deal for the aircraft, deliveries of which will start in the third quarter of 2008. The recent production deal has also removed earlier unease among the remaining MFTS bidders over having to commit to a partnership while uncertainty remained over its ability to define the configuration of synthetic training equipment for the new AJT fleet.

BAE's win with the new-generation Hawk is to date the only aircraft element of MFTS to have been defined, with the wider bidding process so far having been designed to discuss only generic platform types. A key goal of this policy has been to encourage the consortia to challenge the training aircraft sector to offer systems capable of meeting a requirement to move costly flight hours on types like the Eurofighter Typhoon on to aircraft that are cheaper to acquire, operate and support. "We need to make the best use of that training hour in the air," says Smith.

This so-called concept of downloading training from the OCU level is an essential element of the MFTS project, and will significantly reduce the number of flight hours required. For example, while new Typhoon pilots will need to pass through the Royal Air Force's conversion unit for the type, some skills could be learnt using the glass-cockpit Hawk 128, such as through its ability to emulate advanced features such as radar and electronic warfare systems at a fraction of the operating cost. The aircraft will be a class apart from the legacy Hawk T1/1As that entered use from the 1970s.

Detailed design

Following its selection as the TSP, the winning bidder will immediately move from previous concept work to the detailed design phase. This will include providing input for the key student selection and screening processes, although the military will remain responsible for defining input and output standards. The MoD will meanwhile sign its contract for MFTS before the delivery of first services - which will likely see the selected team assume control of some current training elements - next April. The bidders note that UK minister for defence procurement Lord Drayson has identified MFTS as one of the MoD's change programmes, and say his proven reputation for meeting deadlines should --ensure the project's advancement before year-end. Keeler notes: "MFTS, whether by coincidence or not, fits right with the spirit of the [UK] Defence Industrial Strategy - it's all about partnering."

New training school

Work on the synthetic training system for the Hawk 128 is also required to start immediately after the TSP selection, with a new hangar, training school and student accommodation block to be constructed at RAF Valley airbase in north Wales. The availability of the training devices and other ground systems should coincide with the trainer's entry into service.

The use of synthetic training devices and computer-based training is to take on increased importance in the MFTS project, especially as the UK prepares to operate large numbers of single-seat Typhoons and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters over the coming decades, cutting its reliance on two-seat types like the Panavia Tornado F3 and GR4. In addition to simulators and new school facilities including IT-rich classrooms and debrief facilities, bidders also intend to provide further support to students, for example through the provision of personal training devices such as laptop computers, which will enable them to fly practice sorties ahead of formal training. This method of providing additional training capacity has already helped to reduce failure rates within the RAF, cutting the cost of removing students from the pipeline at a potentially advanced stage.

However, while simulation will form an important part of a student's early phase training activities, one consortium official notes: "You still need to know how to fly, and that the ground is very hard if you hit it."

While not contained in the MFTS scheme at the moment, the instruction of personnel set to operate unmanned air vehicles is bound to grow in importance over the life of the project, with the RAF increasingly looking to experiment with unmanned systems.

Another vital aspect of the MFTS programme will be in maintaining the military ethos so valued by the UK armed forces, while placing increasing reliance on industry for the support of its aircraft and infrastructure. This process is currently supported by the many former military instructors who now work at the private sector-managed training schools across the UK, where they can provide a mentor or "uncle" role to students during their instruction. The use of ex-military personnel should also ensure a steady throughput of instructors for the training system.

Although additional new platforms have not been at the forefront during the competition to date, the potential TSPs issued requests for information to airframe suppliers as much as two years ago. The bidding companies also point out that while the fast-jet training requirements of the RAF and Royal Navy represent the highest profile aspect of the MFTS deal, only around 70 students pass through this element of the system each year from an overall total of about 1,500 aircrew.

Following selection of the Hawk 128 simulator, which could be supplied by firms including BAE, CAE or Thales, a new observer trainer platform is required to replace the RN's remaining BAe Jetstream T2s. The service has warned of a potential gap in its future ability to prepare rear crewmembers for its AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin HM1 anti-submarine warfare and Sea King ASaC7 airborne early warning helicopters unless swift action is taken, as the Jetstream is to be retired from April 2009.

Tucano replacement

The TSP's next task will be to select a new platform to serve below the new Hawks and to replace the RAF's current Shorts Tucano fleet. This replacement activity will take on vital importance beneath the smaller than expected Hawk 128 fleet - up to 44 had initially been set for purchase. VT's current five-year total support deal for the Tucano is due to conclude next year, although the MoD holds three one-year options to extend the contract until 2010. The aircraft would require extensive modification to remain in service for several more years, and the UK Disposal Services Agency is already promoting 15 surplus Tucanos on the secondhand market.

Next will be the choice of a multi-engine rear crew trainer for the RAF - potentially an extension to its current lease of Beechcraft King Air 200s, with the last piece of the MFTS puzzle to be addressed early next decade, when a decision will be required on continuation of the tri-service training services currently provided by the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at RAF Shawbury. To expire in April 2012, the centralised training system is uncertain to continue in its current form, with the RAF the only service to currently conduct multi-engine training and the British Army questioning the suitability of combined training ahead of operations of its Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopters. "In terms of rotary wing, the army has a single-service requirement," says one consortium official. The school's current inventory lacks the glass cockpits typical of types like the Apache, Merlin and AgustaWestland's Future Lynx, suggesting upgrades or new acquisitions to meet long-term requirements.

Only once the full training system has been established will the TSP be required to seek third-party customer's for its assets, and to enhance the system's cost effectiveness, perhaps by replacing legacy or interim platform types.

The MoD has a strong recent pedigree in providing training services to allied nations, with for example the Royal Netherlands Air Force sending its Boeing CH-47 pilots to the CAE-run Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility at RAF Benson and Indian air force pilots now receiving instruction on the Hawk T1/1A fleet at RAF Valley (Flight International, 18-24 July).

Industry sources suggest Saudi Arabia could also send some of its trainee pilots to the UK from next year to prepare them for future operations of the Typhoon, following an agreement to purchase 72 of the aircraft.

Smith notes that the TSP will be responsible for implementing the new training system under multiple PFIs and public-private partnership deals, which he claims will deliver commercial efficiency. Rather than following the big-bang approach of the MoD's delayed Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft procurement, it will also offer greater transparency and enable the UK to acquire the most up-to-date equipment. "The MoD knows we will go back to the IAB again and again," says Smith. "The good news is there are multiple options to all aspects of the project - that guarantees value for money," says Keeler.

Change mechanisms

The spirit of partnership will be vital to the long-term success of the MFTS project. "We must be able to have change mechanisms without having to reach for the cost change book every time," says one team official. However, good industrial relations cannot be taken for granted, whatever the past experience of the TSP in partnering with the MoD. Within the last couple of years, operations at the DHFS were briefly disrupted by strike action, and a similar event at RAF Valley was only narrowly averted earlier this year following a dispute with Babcock employees.

With something as important as training on the line, the MoD must hope that such events can become even more of a rarity in the decades to come, as availability-based partnering agreements become ever more the norm.

Source: Flight International