Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Tomorrow's combat pilots could find themselves training in classrooms, in simulators, or even in aircraft bearing a plaque with the legend "Owned and operated by-". Whether the term is "contractise", "privatise" - or, some would complain, compromise - the commercial operation of military training is fast becoming a reality.

While it would seem relatively easy to hand over combat-pilot training to commercial contractors - after all, simulators do not go to war - it strikes at the heart of the military ethos. It remains to be proved whether privately owned and operated training centres can deliver the pilot quality the military demands, as well as the cost savings it needs.

While saving money is the driving force behind the move to privatise military training, there are other potential advantages. Contractors can be more flexible and responsive that the military in maintaining concurrency between aircraft and simulator and in inserting new technology into training devices.

Exploiting new technology

Increasingly, the military is recognising that, to improve (or even to maintain) pilot training in the face of budget pressures, costs must be reduced and new technology exploited. Synthetic training must be made more realistic to compensate for increasing budgetary and environmental constraints on training in the aircraft. Advances in visual simulation and networked trainers offer increased realism, but require the military to find innovative ways to tap into the fast-paced mainstream of commercial computing-technology development.

Commercial operation of military simulators is not new. For several years, the US Air Force has contracted out the operation of its transport-aircraft simulators, and hired commercial contractors to provide instructors for its combat-aircraft simulators. The latest trend goes a step further.

Under current contracts to run aircrew training systems for aircraft such as the Boeing KC-135 and Lockheed C-141, the US Air Force retains ownership of the simulators and pays the contractor to maintain and upgrade the devices, develop courseware and manage the training provided. Under the new "fee-for-service" contracts now emerging, the contractor funds construction and operation of the simulators in return for a per-hour training fee.

The USA is not the first to move in this direction. In fact, the UK has led the way with the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The first PFI project was the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), which is being established at RAF Shawbury by FBS, a consortium of FR Aviation, Bristow Helicopters and Serco Defence. This includes Eurocopter AS350 and Bell 412EP training helicopters and associated simulators supplied by FlightSafety International and Frasca. FBS has a 15-year contract to operate the DHFS, providing helicopter pilot-training for all three UK armed services.

The second (and so far largest) PFI project is CAE Electronics' £275 million contract to establish and operate the Medium Support Helicopter Aircraft Training Facility (MSHATF). CAE leads CVS Aircrew Training, a consortium including Vega Group, Serco and Charterhouse, which will build a training centre at RAF Benson, equip it with six full-flight simulators and operate them on behalf of the UK MoD.

Long-term contract

The consortium has agreed to build, equip, operate and finance the MSHATF in return for a 40-year contract to provide training for RAF Aerospatiale Puma, Boeing Chinook and EH Industries Merlin helicopter aircrew. The £275 million figure represents the value of the contract over the first 20 years, CAE says. Financing for the programme is being provided by a consortium of three financial institutions - the Bank of Nova Scotia, ABM AMRO Bank and Canada's Export Development Corporation - an indication of the fiscal viability of the project.

The MSHATF contract is the largest ever signed by CAE, and represents considerable business for the Canadian company, in the shape of the six simulators - three for the Chinook, two for the Merlin and one for the Puma - as well as ground-school equipment, computer-based training systems and a tactical control centre. Training is to begin in July 1999, and the simulator centre is to be fully operational and equipped by August 2001.

The UK MoD is pushing ahead with its privately financed approach to acquiring training systems. Bids are in for a PFI programme to build and operate a simulator centre for RAF British Aerospace Hawk trainers. A decision is imminent. This will be followed by a PFI contract to supply simulators for the RAF's Panavia Tornado strike aircraft. Training for the British Army's Westland/Boeing WAH-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters is also likely to be acquired under a PFI contract, and thought is being given to privately financing the training system for the RAF's Eurofighter EF2000s.

The US Air Force, meanwhile, has just let its first "fee-for-service" contract, awarding Boeing a seven-year, $333 million, contract under the F-15C Contractor Training and Simulator Service programme. The company will finance the construction and operation of networked F-15 full-mission trainers at two USAF bases initially, with options to install similar four-ship devices at 12 other F-15 bases.

The F-15C contract is the first to be awarded under the USAF's Distributed Mission Training (DMT) programme. This aims to acquire privately financed networked trainers for a range of key combat and transport aircraft and could eventually grow to include USNavy, Marines Corps and Army aircraft.

The initial contract is for two four-ship F-15C full-mission trainers to be operational in March and June 1999, respectively, at Eglin and Langley AFBs. Boeing will build and operate the simulators, while the USAF will provide the instructors - although this may be contracted out separately, as is the current practice. The F-15 trainers will be networked with each other and with Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System simulators at Tinker AFB.

The trainers will be sophisticated devices, with high-resolution, 360í-wraparound, visual systems and radar and electronic-warfare simulations. Each F-15 base will get four trainers, four threat-simulation stations, briefing and debriefing equipment and a mission-observation station. The trainers will allow pilots to practise emergency procedures individually and to rehearse tactics collectively.

Networked trainers

The privately financed acquisition of networked trainers is being championed by the USAF's Air Command Command, says Keith Hertzenberg, Boeing's programme manager for integrated and networked simulation. A major test of the concept is planned for late 1999/early 2000, when an Air Force test team will assess the training effectiveness of the Eglin and Langley F-15 trainers networked with the Tinker E-3 simulators. Until that test is completed, Hertzenberg cautions, the jury will be out on whether the fee-for-service approach works. "Ask me afterwards," jokes Hertzenberg.

Advantages expected, he says, include "a considerably lower upfront cost" to the customer, and the shift of responsibility from Government to industry for maintaining concurrency between aircraft and simulator . Under its contract, Boeing will be required to update its simulators within 60 days of a significant change to the aircraft. "In most cases, we will beat the aircraft," Hertzenberg says.

The DMT initiative is one of several innovative approaches which the US Department of Defense is taking to acquiring training devices and services. Another effort is getting under way to create a "catalogue" of systems which will be available from pre-approved supplier to upgrade existing simulators more quickly and cheaply, to take better advantage of the continuing rapid advances in simulation technology. Such "indefinite quantity, indefinite delivery" contracting vehicles have been used successfully before to simplify the acquisition of training devices.

Source: Flight International