UK Defence (255) – RAF Cosford – World Class Military Aerospace Engineering and Technical Training

Apart from occasional visits to the RAF Museum, my recent visit to RAF Cosford was my first to the operational base for exactly fifty years. A long gap but as far as I am concerned one that has been very well worth the wait for the ability to observe aerospace engineering and technical training at its absolute best. 

While it is true to say some of the infrastructure was still recognisable after all this time, RAF Cosford is a vastly different base today to the one that I can just about remember when I was a member of the Air Training Corps. Suffice to say that through a process of continually adapting in order to meet the constantly changing engineering and technical demands that air power presents, RAF Cosford remains at the top of its game. Through a consistent lean based, can do, will do approach and one that combines strong leadership that is demanding of innovation, it comes as little surprise that RAF Cosford should continue to be regarded around the world as the centre of excellence for military based aerospace engineering and technical training that it provides for students.  

It is somewhat of a coincidence that this commentary should also coincide with the Royal Air Force Cosford Air Show which will be held at the base this coming Sunday. The Cosford Air Show is important for a variety of reasons not least in terms of sharing air power with the local community but also that is emphasise that military air show events such as this one and the upcoming Royal international Air Tattoo to be held next month at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire play a vital role demonstrating to young people as they do the attractions of a professional engineering careers in the Royal Air Force and also of what the wider aerospace industry also has to offer.

The RAF Cosford Air Show has long been appreciated by the thousands of people that attend and with the added attraction of being held alongside the superb Royal Air Force Museum the Air Show will continue to shed light to more and more visitors of the pivotal role that engineering training at RAF Cosford plays in current and future strategic air power thinking.      

In placing aerospace engineering training as a key priority across the military and in recognising that large UK based aerospace and defence engineering companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, GKN, Thales, Marshalls, Raytheon, Babcock, Selex, AgustaWestland and others have not only continued to invest in but that have achieved excellent records of success in respect of engineering apprentice and graduate training schemes, it remains true that as a nation the UK is failing to train anywhere near the number of engineers and technicians that we need.

Skill shortages are a major problem that the UK must address this dangerous situation within the context of the whole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) issue and the need for a greater amount of education and training effort in these disciplines.

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering the UK needs 87,000 level 4 engineers each year if we are to meet current and anticipated demands and 69,000 Level 3 Engineers. The pool of available talent is undoubtedly shrinking and it is also sadly true that too few graduate engineers (approximately half) choose to go into or indeed, remain in engineering related posts throughout their careers. Demand way outstrips supply and today we produce just 51,000 of the latter and 23,500 of the former. It is not nearly enough and as a nation we will suffer the consequences increasingly in the years ahead unless we redress the balance.

In a competitive environment RAF Cosford plays a very important role in attempting to do just that. Innovation is key to what it does and what will be needed to sustain the military aerospace sector over the following decades. Retention is an issues adversely impacting on the military and with the insatiable appetite for trained engineers and indeed, trainers themselves it is hardly surprising that the military, weakened by pressure on resources and affordability issues can be a too easy touch. Along with helping to address the STEM issue and to encourage more people to consider engineering and technical careers, the Royal Air Force will no doubt use RAF 100 as an opportunity to enhance the point of what is required.   

Military air capability gets ever more sophisticated and the work done at RAF Cosford in training tomorrow’s military aerospace engineers and technicians is as crucial today as it has ever been. In a challenging defence environment in which the new ‘speak’ from SDSR 2015 is of enhancing capability and growing defence it is good to see that the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering at RAF Cosford is not only in good health but continuing to rise to the challenge of training the aerospace engineers and technicians that the military will continue to need.

So what does RAF Cosford do? In short it provides military aerospace related engineering and technical training to the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the Army. For the RAF this will include Engineer Officers, Aircraft Mechanics, Technicians including mechanical, electronics and weapons, ICT technicians, survival equipment fitters and specialist photography and physical training. For the Royal Navy this will include air engineering technicians, survival equipment fitters and air engineering officers and for the Army, air engineering officers and technicians.      

There is no denying that the UK military is short of engineers and specialist technicians and in providing the primary air power related elements of engineering training across all three services RAF Cosford is playing a hugely important role not only in training engineers and technicians for the future but also in filling the gap that has emerged. This is a very busy base and one which makes good use of all of its many assets. Home to a variety of training based activities and what are colloquially called lodger units  

A responsibility of Air Officer Commanding 22 Group, Air Vice Marshal Andrew Turner, and under the direct command of Group Captain Mark Hunt who is both Commandant and Station Commander, my two day visit in May confirmed that RAF Cosford is not only a well-run lean operation but also one that the military and civilian training staff employed not only clearly enjoy what they do and achieve but who are also well-motivated to succeed.

RAF Cosford sets out to provide what may best be described as a world-class military technical training environment for the delivery of agile, adaptable and operationally-focused air based engineering and technician training for military personnel. It does this not just for the Royal Air Force but for members of the Army and Royal Navy as well and in respect of the prosperity agenda, it plays and important role in international defence training as well.

By the time students have qualified and departed from RAF Cosford and its satellite operations they will undoubtedly be able to demonstrate that they are competent, skillful and have been highly trained in order to provide specialist engineering and technical support whether this may be required at a home base or required within the operational deployment of Air Power elements of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy or Army that they joined.

While RAF Cosford is home to a number of different engineering and other defence based training organisations by far the largest number of personnel based there are employed directly or in support of the delivery of military training of some sort. There are as I suggest a number of different engineering and technical based training schools on the base and between them they are responsible for the provision of all Phase 2 and some Phase 3 training for RAF based trade specialisations of Aeronautical Engineering, Information and Communication Technology (IT), Physical Training and Photography training for all three sections of our armed forces and for important elements of international defence training as well. 

Following their Initial Officer Training at the RAF College Cranwell and the requirement by all three armed services for them to learn basis military skills, in the case of the Royal Air Force future engineer officers move on to RAF Cosford in order to receive Phase 2 specialist training. This comprises specialist training prepares Service personnel for their first employment. Phase 3 Training provides them with increased skill base and/or responsibility required for employment in the chosen specialist engineering or technical trade and will have encompassed training to meet career aspirations and professional development.

Training at RAF Cosford has over many years been designed to prepare military personnel for careers in their specialist branch (officers) or trade (airmen) and for the performance of their branch/trade tasks on deployed operations. The facilities are extensive and the number of operationally retired aircraft available for trainees to work on including Jaguar and Panavia Tornado combat jets together with Sea King and other military rotary aircraft is extensive.  

In order to provide the extensive requirement of engineering based air power training RAF Cosford has required to be the primary home of a large number of important engineering, technical and other functions. Primary amongst these are the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering (DSAE) which was established in 2004 as a direct result of the Defence Training Review and that today may be described as the primary partnered solution for air power related engineering defence training for all three armed for elements. With Cosford being the primary base DSAE also has responsibility for the satellite operations at Lyneham (School of Army Aeronautical Engineering and Gosport, Hampshire (Royal Navy Air Engineering and Survival Equipment School).

With approximately 1,500 aeronautical engineering personnel from the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army going through the Cosford Apprenticeship system annually approximately 600 plus ‘learners’ going through the RAF Cosford Apprenticeship schemes at the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineers annually, another 130 going through the Defence School of Communications and around 14 going through the Defence School of Photograph. The pass rate is high at 91% and the number that drop out very low.

All aspects of aerospace related technical, management, survival, radio, photography, physical ae covered and as mentioned, international defence training (IDT) as well and at any one time around 240 students will be from foreign air forces. Since 2005 RAF Cosford has been responsible for training close to 1,700 students from countries that include Saudi Arabia, UAE, USA, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Brunei plus another ten countries with whom the UK enjoys strong ties.  

Since it was established DSAE has worked and grown in tandem with the Defence Technical Training Change Programme (DTTCP), an organisation mandated to develop affordable and value-for-money solutions for future defence training. While there is still a long way to go and much change yet to be implemented RAF Cosford has been quick to embrace the latest developments in training design and methods and also in the transformation of technical training to encompass modern day learning methods.

The principal task of the DSAE is to produce highly trained and motivated aeronautical engineering mechanics, technicians and officers ready to contribute to UK Defence. The DSAE is a federated school and comprises training establishments across three sites including the Royal Navy Air Engineering and Survival School (RNAESS) based at HMS SULTAN in Gosport, the REME School of Army Aeronautical Engineering (SAAE) based in Arborfield, the RAF No 1 School of Technical Training and the RAF Aerosystems Engineer and Management Training School. RAF Cosford is home to Headquarters DSAE.

The wider DSAE, along with No 1 Radio School which is part of the Defence School of Communications and Information Systems (DSCIS) continues to drive through modernisation and efficiency across the broad spectrum of responsibility that it has for training members of all three elements of the military and both colleges provide Foundation Degree courses that are designed to prepare selected non-commissioned personnel for Engineer Branch commissioning.

DSAE Headquarters

The Commandant DSAE who is also Station Commander of RAF Cosford is currently Group Captain Mark Hunt. DSAE HQ at Cosford provides high-level planning and business development functions and ensures that services provided to DSAE satellite sites meet the standards set out in parenting agreements. DSAE at Cosford is recognised as a contributor to wider Defence Engagement, International Security Co-operation and the prosperity agenda through its important work delivering International Defence Training to military personnel from countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Brunei, USA and several other countries.

The DSAE Training Development and Standards Organisation (TDSO) brings together training development personnel and assets of the DSAE under single direction providing SO1 accredited tri-service training development. The Accreditation Group also manages the Royal Air Force Aeronautical Apprenticeship scheme that is delivered both at Cosford and across main RAF operating bases. The RAF Aeronautical Apprenticeships are claimed to be the largest and most successful Aeronautical Engineering Apprenticeships in the UK. The COS (Chief of Staff) DSAE area delivers assurance, engineering management and safety management functions to all DSAE schools. Subordinated organisations include the Quality and Continuous Improvement Team (QCIT) and Training Equipment Support and Safety (TES&S). COS also acts as the Principal Engineer, advising the Commandant on aviation engineering matters and Military Aviation Authority (MAA) engineering compliance.

The RAF Aerosystems Engineer and Management Training School (AE&MTS) is also based at RAF Cosford delivering aero-systems and management training to Royal Air Force engineer officers, officer cadets, SNCOs and JNCOs, along with academic principles to airman as part of their trade training. Courses vary from a 14 month long Foundation Degree down to some of which are just a few weeks in length. The AE&MTS School trains over 1000 students per year including engineer officers from a number of overseas countries such as Sultanate of Oman, Nation of Brunei and, Kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The training consists of a blended mixture of theory and practical exercises during which the students are able to use the School’s excellent training facilities, including aero-thermal laboratories and wind tunnels, as well as ‘live’ Jaguar aircraft; these give the students the opportunity to operate in a safe, supervised and simulated squadron environment RAF No 1 School of Technical Training (Part of the DSAE).

No 1 Radio School (Part of the Defence College of Communication and Information Systems (DCCIS) is part of the Defence School of Communications and Information Systems (DSCIS) which has its headquarters at Blandford. No 1 Radio School is responsible for Phase 2 and 3 training of RAF Trade Group 4 (Information and Communication Technology – ICT) training technicians to meet the RAF’s requirement for a huge range of complex LAN IT based communication and information networks, sensors and detection systems that are required to maintain airfield and air defence systems.

No 1 School of Technical Training is dedicated to providing world class aeronautical engineering training to around 2,000 national and international Phase 2 trainees and Phase 3 students annually. Courses provide training in mechanical, avionics, weapons and survival equipment disciplines along with human factors and expedient repair based training. The apprentices on these schemes have access to high-quality specialist training facilities allowing them to develop and extend aircraft engineering skills to the full. Resources to support teaching, learning and student welfare were acknowledged by Ofsted to be ‘outstanding’ in the most recent inspection report of January 2015. Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence are the hallmarks of training here and the School is proud to be associated with and to provide technical expertise and support to external agencies including: World Skills competition; Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE); Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM); and Royal Aeronautical Society lectures.

Part of the Joint Intelligence Training Group which has its headquarters at Chicksands, the Defence School of Photography is responsible for delivering Phase 2 and 3 photographic training for Army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and for providing courses to other supporting government functions. Operationally focused, the highly regarded career professional photographic course (28 weeks long) covers all aspects of photography and graduates work towards an Advanced Apprenticeship (AA) in Photo Imaging. They also have the opportunity to join the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP). Shorter courses can be delivered bespoke to customer requirements and some of these attract NVQ and VRQ qualifications.

The RAF School of Physical Training is responsible for the delivery of specialist trade training to Personnel Branch Officers and Physical Training Instructors. This will include professional through-career training for all ranks across the physical training cadre including trade management training. The School also has responsibility for course and syllabus design; accreditation and validation of learning and for providing ongoing through-life training support.

RAF Cosford is also directly responsible for DSAE (Gosport) whose main elements consists of the Royal Navy Air Engineering and Survival School HMS Sultan. This School operates four strands of training, these being Air Engineering Mechanics, Air Engineering Artificers, Survival Training and Air Engineering Officers. In addition Cosford is responsible for DSAE (Arborfield) in conjunction with the Technology Branch and which forms part of the Defence College of Electro-Mechanical Engineering. Responsibility here is for providing training to all Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) aviation technicians, artificers and engineering officers. The Technology Branch is responsible for teaching academic subjects such as electronic theory and the theory of flight while DCAE (Arborfield) covers, engineering techniques, aircraft systems and equipment training on the lynx and gazelle helicopters).

OTHER COSFORD ‘Lodger’ Units

University of Birmingham Air Squadron (UBAS).

The UBAS has a total of 6 military and civilian staff overseeing 78 undergraduate Officer Cadets and Acting Pilot Officers who undertake a range of activities designed to develop the students in preparation for a career in the RAF or outside within civilian professions. These activities include personal development and leadership training, adventure training, force development and flying opportunities designed to test and enhance the students’ courage, confidence and leadership skills. Embedded within UBAS is No 8 AEF who share the 5 Grob Tutor Aircraft and flew in excess of 2,900 Air Training Corps Cadets over the last 12 months.

RAF Cosford is also home to No 8 Air Experience Flight (AEF), the HQ for Wales and Western Region Air Training Corps, HQ West Mercia Wing Air Training Corps, HQ Principal Dental Officer West Midlands and Wales Region, RAF Cosford Medical Treatment Facility (Part of Defence Primary Health Care (Wales and West Midlands), HQ Combined Cadet Force Training and Evaluation Support Team West and No 633 Volunteer Gliding School (VGS).

The Royal Air Force Museum.

The Museum’s aim is to preserve an important part of Britain’s national aviation heritage and to display it for future generations and it is the only national museum dedicated wholly to aviation. At two separate locations (Hendon in London and the other occupying one side of the RAF base at Cosford, the RAF Museum has a unique collection of important military aircraft, missiles and artefacts that represent transport, training research & development and so on. Museum staff and volunteers are actively engaged in conservation work and the RAF Cosford site is acknowledged as one of the leading public attractions in the Midlands with its display of over 70 military aircraft. Cosford is also home to the National Cold War Exhibition which focuses on the Cold War story from a national, international and social/political angle, as well as cultural perspectives.

Summing up, as I said at the beginning of this defence piece it has been very rewarding to see the ongoing work that RAF Cosford is doing to enhance military aerospace engineering and technical training. In a defence world where affordability is key RAF Cosford is doing a job that I doubt could be bettered within or by the private sector.  Like many other Royal Air Force bases it is achieving its aims within ageing infrastructure and at the same time attempting to make itself even more efficient. Doing that and accepting and adapting to a continuous change process will be an interesting challenge but it is one that I believe the Royal Air Force will, as it moves further toward RAF 100, rise to.

(Please Note: I am now away on business in the USA for the rest of the current week although I will continue to be available via email – Commentary will return on Monday June 20th)

CHW (London – 13th June 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710-779785

UK Defence (254) – RAF Waddington Prepares For Exciting Future

One of the single most important bases in the Royal Air Force inventory and the centre of excellence of UK ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) activity plus also one that in terms of capability enhancement will be a major eventual beneficiary from SDSR 2015 in relation to the planned ‘Future Force 2025’ RAF Waddington is upping its game as it prepares itself for an even busier future.

There can be little doubt that the Royal Air Force as a whole was a significant beneficiary of what emerged in SDSR 2015 and quite rightly so. But the potential for meaningful benefit to occur from the plans to upgrade and expand UK ISTAR capability brings its own set of problems too. The bottom line is that before we get to where we want to be there are some very large hurdles to jump.

I may not make myself popular by saying this but Waddington is to me probably the single most important base that the Royal Air Force has. That is because this is the centre of excellence of UK ISTAR capability. I say this as well because I happen to believe the notion that that it is no use attempting to fight an enemy unless you know where it is and you can see it electronically. A simplistic notion this may appear to be but this emphasises why having strong ISTAR capability is absolutely essential.

Opened exactly one hundred years ago and with the motto ‘For Faith and Freedom’ RAF Waddington is the home of no less than six badged ground based and flying squadrons. As the UK’s primary ISTAR hub when fully operational it is the home base of 8 Squadron Sentry E3-D AEW (Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems) and 5(AC) Squadron Sentinel R1 (ASTOR – Airborne Stand-Off Radar) wide area surveillance capability. RAF Waddington is also home to 14 Squadron Shadow R1 ISR capability and to 51 Squadron RC-135W Rivet Joint (SIGINT) signals intelligence capability together with 13 Squadron MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) capability (this including 39 Squadron who are based at Creech Air Force Base Nevada) together with the Air Battlespace Training Centre which exploits to the full synthetic based air and land battlespace simulation systems training. I should add that the base is also home to two Reserve Squadrons 54 (R) and 56 (R) together with 2503 (County of Lincoln) RAuxAF Regiment Squadron.

In respect of base operations, the last 20 months have been particularly difficult at RAF Waddington due to the runway having been completely out of action. Closed since late 2014 for major rebuilding and resurfacing, a job that was supposed to have been finished by the end of 2015, it now seems unlikely that Waddington’s runway will be fully operational until the very end of this year or maybe just into 2017. I am loathed to be critical in matters such as this or of how these thing are done, but I would be negligent if I was to fail to suggest that the DIO (Defence Infrastructure Organisation) and the contractors, Carillion all appear to have major questions to be answered.

To call the runway rebuild issue anything other than a shambles, no matter that hitherto unforeseen issues occurred, would be an understatement. Moreover, the human cost and misery caused to so many Royal Air Force personnel who live on the base but that have been required to travel to and from RAF Coningsby on a daily basis as this base on the other side of Lincoln has been required to host the bulk of the Waddington based air capability movement and engineering and operational support since late in 2014, is incalculable.

For the air crews and the necessary support required to ensure full mission capability and training that includes engineers, technicians and many others required to support the four primary front line squadrons impacted (5, 8, 14 and 51) by the loss of the runway and that been required to face up to the twice daily drudgery of being transported between Waddington through the traffic snarled centre of Lincoln and out onto the other side up to RAF Coningsby and back in order to do their job not to mention the extended impact that this has had on their families is as regrettable as it should have been unnecessary.

For all that, as my recent visit to RAF Waddington proved, there is on this base an air of optimism that cannot be ignored. ISTAR capability enhancement is as I have already alluded to been one of the primary features of SDSR 2015. And whilst it is true that most of the projects outlined are still waiting for funding one may hope that the investment strategy that will include Sentry capability upgrade and enhancement, Sentinel extension until at least 2021 plus increased numbers of Shadow capability gathers momentum. While it has been true that ISTAR capability has often tendency to lack sufficient advocacy within the UK military arena, in government and externally, we may hope that what has been promised by the government in terms of future ISTAR delivery means that they have listened to the few voices out there. Add this to plans already announced back in SDSR 2010 including delivery in September 2017 of the third and final Boeing built RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft from L-3 Communications plus the plan to eventually replace the existing 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles/RPAS capability with in excess of 20 Protector aircraft we should be in no doubt that a clear, albeit currently still unfunded, strategy for ISTAR enhancement exists.

Whilst SDSR 2015 confirmed much of what Air Command had been requesting as a bare minimum we should not ignore that with little additional funding for planned capability enhancement available before 2018/19 we are in a process of limbo and uncertainty in defence. That SDSR 2015 demanded £11.5 billion of cost savings from right across the defence piece as an absolute necessity in order to fund future planned capability enhancement is also a concern particularly if we ask the question what happens if not all the proposed savings are achievable? What all this means is that the work of translation of SDSR 2015 strategy into reality is being made all the more difficult.

Even so, this has not stopped the Royal Air Force starting the process of translation and forward planning on the basis of what SDSR 2015 promises. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than with the ISTAR Force Integration Programme and that has been give the rather apt programme name of Athena. 

Athena, the ISTAR Force Integration Programme, looks to be a cohesive and well-constructed plan by the ISTAR Force Commander and one that if approved will be the enabler for delivery of future UK ISTAR operational capability.

Probably what sets Athena apart from the more usual strategic planning effort that we so often see is that from the outset this is about using integrated effort and resource meaning involving ALL of those for whom ISTAR is a capability requirement and ALL that will play a part in its eventual delivery to the end user.

The way I see it Athena is this is a very good example of what the Royal Air Force ‘Thinking to Win’ strategy is all about. New ideas, new ways of working together as a ‘Whole Force’ and that involve everyone not just a few. Named after the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, Athena is hopefully setting out to achieve improved and sustainable ISTAR operational capability using a single coordinated team across all ISTAR elements and hopefully, one underlying entity that defence as a whole can recognise. If this all comes together it will include serving military personnel, reservists, civil servants, industry partners and contractors working as an integrated team to deliver every aspect of operational capability and support services, facilities and amenities . What I particularly like about the Athena approach is the willingness to look at doing things in a different way and that, if the work is done properly, should be able to maximise opportunities to collaborate and partner whilst also finding better ways of working and making use of both hard and soft resources. The objectives may be summed up a ‘delivery’ and that the Air ISTAR Force is able to make a major contribution to implementation demands required by Air Command. In respect of what few aspects of Project Athena I have described above and in its underlying attempt to recreate pride and purpose and to share ideas, two important aspects of RAF ‘Thinking to Win’ strategy the work done so far has been very impressive.

Back in the ‘here and now’ while from a military perspective the view for the future has become far more positive for this to continue requires that not only oversight on the £11.5bn cost take out but also hope that whatever emerges from the EU membership debate and referendum that no matter what the Government delivers on all of the various promises made in SDSR 2015.

Until then and until new capability planned eventually comes on stream those on the ground and with responsibility have no choice but to continue managing decline whilst they at the same time plan for the future.

At RAF Waddington and other bases around the UK ageing infrastructure remains a serious problem. So too is there a need across the whole of defence to move away from a ‘what we are able to do with the current infrastructure, manpower and equipment capability to a philosophy of what should we be doing? Right now defence needs to be requirement led rather than resource led. Apart from this an, as already mentioned, knowledge that no part of the SDSR 2015 plan has been actually funded yet, I suppose that the other holistic concern that I cannot avoid mentioning is the huge and growing concern about manpower shortage. While this is not a new problem for the Royal Air Force in terms of maintaining ISTAR operational capability it is one that each and every squadron on the base that I met with highlights as the major concern for the future.

As this piece is partly intended as an update I will now touch on some current and future capability issues in respect of individual Waddington based squadron activity. Suffice to say that across virtually all squadrons here retention and training issues are almost always the first to be raised in terms of priority. With much needed confirmation in SDSR 2015 of various ISTAR capability enhancements the need to plan future manpower needs along with accommodation and other requirements is now a priority. Doing this in the face of continuing cuts and ever increasing pressure on resources is certainly not easy and I suspect that along with other RAF bases facing similar issues that Waddington is not alone. Retention – finding ways to incentivise those that the Royal Air Force needs to retain whilst at the same time finding new, more efficient and faster ways of training using synthetics across all trades – are issues that no one can ignore. It is a competitive world and the MOD needs to do more to ensure it retains the expertise it needs. Nowhere to me is this more pronounced that in the shortage of engineers and technicians.   


The Raytheon Sentinel R1 (ASTOR) capability is a perfect example of where the MOD can be accused of giving on one hand whilst seemingly taking away on the other. For instance, while it was absolutely right that Sentinel R1 OSD (Out-Of-Service Date) was extended out in SDSR 2015 to 2021 the number of aircraft will shortly fall from five to four. This is a direct response to what had been called for in SDSR 2010 and that, despite having extended the OSD to 2018, has seen the number of crews available to be all but halved.

The reality of the loss of one Sentinel R1 aircraft in the operational fleet has other implications too as I suspect the is genuine reason to be concerned that, based on the current rate of anticipate mission requirements,  5(AC) Squadron will not be able to field or sustain sufficient capability to meet demands placed on it. Given the vital well proven capability that ASTOR provides it is worth noting in this context that with just five crews as opposed to the ten that it had ahead of the SDSR 2010 announcement 5 (AC) Squadron has never been busier. Indeed, it has out on deployment somewhere for all but seven weeks since 2009.

Regarded as one of the most important assets in the UK ISTAR inventory, the 5(AC) Squadron operated Sentinel R1 (ASTOR – Airborne Stand-Off Radar) wide area surveillance capability complete with its synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator has, since it came into service in 2008 proved its worth on deployment over and over again. The On-Board intelligence and analytical capability has been pivotal in providing intelligence to ground force commanders and others in allowing them to plan. That is exactly what it is there for and why it is so highly regarded not just by our own armed forces those of our NATO allies but also to the French military during its deployment in Mali, West Africa. 

To suggest anything other than that Sentinel ASTOR capability has proved itself to be a very aspect of ISTAR would be to completely miss the point of what this brilliant technology and air support provides. But in my view extending Sentinel OSD to 2021 is only a half-way house in terms of ensuring that the UK can maintain this crucial ISTAR related support until, we assume, that it will be incorporated within a replacement platform. To ensure that we retain this important wide-area reconnaissance capability we must in my view not only push forward the Sentinel OSD out to 2025 but also increase the number of crews available and retain the fifth aircraft. We must also seriously consider the need to further invest in Sentinel capability enhancement through a mid-life process.  

Even with the likelihood that the first of the nine proposed Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability arriving in 2020 and the other platforms following over the next two or three years it seems to me very unlikely that until at least 2025 P-8 will be able to field the additional wide area surveillance capability required by the Royal Air Force. We cannot afford another capability gap and on that basis it makes sense to consider enhancing the existing capability and taking the OSD out to where it had been originally intended to 2025.

Sentry E3-D AWACS

8 Squadron which is responsible for the operation of the UK’s Sentry E-3D AWACS capability is one that I personally know well and have enjoyed mission experience in the past. What Sentry E3-D AWACS capability provides is the ISTAR. In service since 1991 it remains a crucial air power related technology in the arsenal of NATO and its allies. This is strategic platform capability and what the Royal Air Force provides remains a central part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force. The UK currently operates 6 Sentry E3-D aircraft (normally from RAF Waddington although currently flying out of RAF Coningsby due to Waddington runway issues) and along with other mission requirements the UK capability is currently deployed in support of Operation Shader at RAF Akrotiri in support UK Panavia Tornado GR4 and Typhoon led missions over Iraq and Syria and to other C-130J, CH-47 Chinook, AH64 Apache and Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft and those of our NATO allies in support.

The current NATO fleet comprises 16 Sentry E-3A aircraft with the type in service in France, the USA and also, Saudi Arabia. Whilst NATO itself has reduced the number of Sentry aircraft it maintains all the other users except Britain have upgraded their Sentry technology. 

Sentry does what it says on the tin and I will not attempt to involve myself in describing the technical detail of the mission capability. It works but it is old and requires upgrading. SDSR 2015 confirmed that Sentry capability would at last be upgraded and that the OSD would now be extended to 2035. The decision was not surprisingly welcomed but because no funding will be available before 2020 it will be another four years before upgrading and capability enhancement work begins. SDSR 2015 confirmed an intention that Britain would now upgrade its Sentry E3-D capability and extend the through life to 2035.

The MOD has yet to define the full nature of the intended Sentry upgrade and whether this will be similar to the Block 40/45 process that is currently being adopted by the US Air Force (USAF) and that has also been used as a model for the French Air Force’s upgrade effort. I assume that the aircraft itself will be fitted with a new modern flight deck but it is the internal capability which is crucial to mission success that requires the most significant investment. The present equipment is old and lacks capacity and I suspect that the MOD is almost bound to go the same route as the US. Specifically, the process involves increasing the aircraft’s processing power to enhance the performance of the advanced battle management tools (Automatic Air Tasking Orders and Airspace Co-ordination Order updates etc) 4G power enhancement, Mode 5 NATO communication requirement interoperability, upgrading the Multi-Source Integration (MSI) integration process together with the upgrading of the aircraft’s various other electronic support systems

With just 6 aircraft of which 2 are always undergoing in-depth maintenance means that forward availability is restricted to four aircraft. Two aircraft are usually either in the UK or deployed. SDSR 2015 demands that the number of combat ready crews for Sentry is eventually twelve. There is a long way to go as currently there are only five although the plan is to have seven by the end of 2016.

Clearly although the airframe capability is in this case not an issue maintenance and technical support certainly is. There are critical shortages of engineering and technical expertise and while in depth maintenance is contracted out it seems to me that this might better be done away from Waddington leaving the RAF engineers, technicians and external contractors who support the AWACS capability better placed to do their work  hangars rather than outside.

There can be no doubt that Sentry E-3D capability enhancement is now urgently required and that until this occurs keeping the aircraft capability fit for purpose and able to deploy will get harder. Again, the ability to retain sufficient engineers and technicians to support the capability is clearly an issue just as it is also in respect of pilots and those operate the specialist capability. These are all very important and costly issues for the Royal Air Force and in the run up to the proposed £2bn Sentry Capability Sustainment Programme which is planned to start in 2020 these are all important issues that need to be addressed within the ISTAR Force Integration Programme.

Training is another important issue in respect of Sentry E3-D capability and this too will require significant investment in synthetic based equipment. The inter-connect with Sentry E3-D capability and Air Battlespace Training is crucially important and the MOD must ensure that this continues to be fully recognised in the future investment plans.  

Shadow R1 

SDSR 2015 also confirmed that the Raytheon Shadow R1 Beechcraft King Air 350CER-based signals intelligence aircraft capability are to remain in service until at least 2030 and that the six-strong fleet (five operational aircraft plus one trainer) will increase to eight by 2025 with the acquisition of two further aircraft.

As a capability that is resourced to task this is excellent news for what is clearly a very important and of necessity, a highly classified capability. Shadow R1 capability had originated from an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) based on requirements that emerged in Op Herrick.  Operated by 14 Squadron and regarded today as a crucial element of Royal Air Force ISTAR capability the number of crews, currently believed to be 12 will, with additional capacity coming on stream post 2020 need to be increased. Other issues to consider are capability development   

MQ-9 Reaper         

Again, highly classified for obvious reasons and another example of what is now considered as a vital capability having started life as UOR based on Op. Herrick, Reaper capability is operated by a combination of 13 Squadron based at RAF Waddington and 39 Sqn, based at Creech Air Force Base Nevada, USA. The Royal Air Force operates ten Predator MQ-9 Reaper ‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance’ (MALE) remotely piloted air systems that are built by General Atomics.

With Royal Air Force crews embedded with USAF since 2007/8 the Royal Air Force has amassed considerable experience in Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS). Apart from the Reaper MALE itself the full capability comprises of Ground Stations, communications equipment, satellite links and a suite of highly important and robust sensors. Reaper is operated by a crew of two highly qualified personnel one of whom is the pilot and the other being termed as the sensor operator, the latter being responsible for using the targeted imagery sensor equipment plus other mission operating systems. The ‘crew’ is in turn aided by a non-aircrew Mission Coordinator. However, Reaper is launched only by in-theatre crews located at the same airbase as the actual aircraft has been deployed to before it is then handed over to the mission crew who, depending on the time of day or night, are located at either Creech AFB or RAF Waddington and who operate and guide the aircraft via secure satellite communication.

As a rule of thumb I would suggest that two thirds of the actual flying is conducted by 13 Squadron teams and one third by those at 39 Squadron although I emphasise that these are not specific figures. At the end of each mission control is once again passed back to crew in theatre for landing.

Missions are predominantly reconnaissance based although for close air support based missions and ground attack Reaper is equipped with two GBU-12 500lb Laser Guided Bombs together with up to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

Reaper has a flying life of approximately 20,000 hours although as far as I am aware there is no reason why this should not be extended. Again for obvious reasons the capability has proved itself to be something that we cannot be without. It is the only ISTAR capability that can also be used to attack and although it is vulnerable to weather and can only operate in combat airspace it is a capability that we cannot do without. Contrary to a lot of misguided opinion Reaper is not an autonomous system. Thus it does not have the capability to employ weapons unless instructed to do so by a flight crew who operate under the same strict Rules of Engagement (ROE) as do manned fast jet aircraft. The important point to realise about Reaper RPAS capability being used in an attack mode is to realise that weapons carried and used are precision guided to ensure collateral damage risk is extremely limited and that a full assessment of risk is conducted prior to authorisation by a Forward Air Controller or Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) will authorise the release of any weapon. 

The MOD has now confirmed that Protector, a derivative of the MQ-9 Reaper capability has been chosen to replace Reaper and that up to 20 Protector systems are to be acquired. Rather than acquire its own simulation training systems the UK bought training places from the US and whilst I am unaware of plans to acquire synthetic based training systems for the UK this may be a requirement that needs to be considered. Retention of trained personnel is crucial and there are issues with the ‘offer’ that in this context here in the UK may need to be redressed for the future. 

RC-135 Rivet Joint (RJ or Airseeker)  

As I wrote back in February 2015 (UK Defence – Resounding Success of RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’) Rivet JointRC-135 Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) has proved to be an exceptionally capable system and I change nothing from what I said back then.

In the capable hands of 51 Squadron and in a very compressed work up period ahead of deployment Rivet Joint has performed brilliantly be this in Northern Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever else the single aircraft capability has been sent. Not surprisingly, highly classified which prevents the availability of information being made Rivet Joint is deserving of singling out for much praise.

The first of three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft was delivered to the Royal Air Force after conversion by L-3 in 2013 and was declared fully operational late in 2014. The second aircraft was delivered in September 2015 and the third and final aircraft is expected in September 2017. With five trained crews the capability continues the process of building competency and currency although to suggest that there have not been some issues and teething problems to get through would be wrong. As a highly classified programme information is very limited. This is as it should be but suffice to say that manpower and training issues are a concern and that the number of mission crew personnel most probably needs to be increased from the present number. Other issues that I might highlight are SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency protocol) concerns together with shortages of airborne systems engineers, and linguists.

Nevertheless, while manning and manpower issues as a whole are an issue here just as much as they are right across the Force Rivet joint has as I suggest already proved itself to be a formidable capability in theatre in support of our own military and that of our NATO allies and others who we choose to support. Manning issues must be sorted and 51 Squadron will need to continue expanding during the build up to delivery of the third and final aircraft. The Squadron will also have to learn to cope with two year cycles of maintenance meaning one of the three aircraft will usually be in deep maintenance. Currently operating out of ‘borrowed’ space at RAF Mildenhall when not deployed elsewhere the sooner the Waddington’s runway is sorted and that 51 Squadron and its two aircraft can get back home the better.

A final thought on RJ is to remember that Royal Air Force RJ has already ‘bought’ leverage with USAF in the number of successful missions that, up to now, the one single aircraft capability that we have had has already achieved. That is no mean feat and one that is down to the dedication and professionalism of 51 Squadron. 

Despite still having no runway RAF Waddington remains is a very busy and very important base. The fact that the organisation of runway rebuilding has been something of a shambles will, I hope, be addressed by the MOD and that if found wanting not only will head role but those that are responsible called upon for redress. That apart this is a base in very good heart despite fighting the seeming permanency of the need to manage infrastructure decline and capability that in some cases is near to being obsolete. The fundamental and very apparent lack of infrastructure spend at Waddington is there for all to see. Manning and other related issues such as retention and the overall risk that these and other resourcing requirements are seen from a command and control perspective are matters of concern that need to be properly addressed.

For too many years ISTAR has lacked proper advocacy but in SDSR 2015 those that had been championing the vital importance of the UK investing in ISTAR along with increasing the number of fast jet squadrons appeared to have won the day. Mindful that nothing is yet funded, with rebuilding and enhancing the ISTAR component force being one of the central planks of the SDSR 2015 promise, let us hope that from now on resource will be ‘requirement led’ and that the future will be about what we need to be doing as opposed to what we have struggled to do with far too little resource.

CHW (London – 6th June 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710-779785

UK Defence (253A) – Of Jutland Lessons and UK and NATO European Defence Spending

With the leaders of France and Germany having marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun a few days ago and which commemorated a 10 month long battle during which 300,000 French and German soldiers lost their lives we ourselves recall today with great sadness another battle that took place in the North Sea one hundred years today when the Royal Navy and the German Navy faced each other in the Battle of Jutland.

I am not proposing to engage here in the rights and wrongs, strengths, weaknesses and failings of people and capability used in the Battle of Jutland or attempt to provide a view on who won or lost the largest naval battle of the Great War. In truth neither side won or lost but both were seriously damaged as a result. As the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones wrote in an article published in the Daily Telegraph today has suggested, “The battle itself revealed serious shortcomings in the tactics of the Royal Navy fleet that had previously enjoyed and aura of invincibility”. Suffice to say that whatever tactics, failed communications or leadership issues that may have influenced both sides in the battle there can be little argument that the huge disparity in ship losses (the British lost far more ships than the Germans did) was most likely caused by the superiority of German gunnery over that of Admiral Beatty’s six battle cruisers.

Today the, we remember not only the 6,000 Royal Navy and 2,500 German sailors who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland but are reminded as well that after Jutland lessons needed to be learned. They always are and we need to be constantly reminded that we don’t always get it right. We are through events and occasions such as this reminded too of why maintaining a strong and vibrant Royal Navy is so necessary for an island nation state such as ourselves. Clearly, as far as our government is concerned there are still lessons to be learned over capability shortage.

(Note that the HRH Princess Anne [HRH the Duke of Edinburgh having been advised against attending the above event on medical advice] together with Prime Minister David Cameron will represent that nations commemorations on Orkney later today in remembering a battle which occasioned 250 warships of both navies to be engaged in a major clash and that led to the deaths of more than 8,500 British and German sailors. Sailors from both the Royal Navy and German Navy will throw thousands of poppies and forget-me-nots into the North Sea at the actual site of the clash at Jutland Bank off the Danish coast beneath which lie the wrecks of many ships.)

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today the First Sea Lord (1SL) also gave timely and necessary reminders that sea power remains key to Britain’s defence and prosperity. 1SL went on to suggest in the piece “that the sea is Britain’s front line and the country must be able to deliver both the soft touch of preventative engagement and the hard punch of military power”. He said that the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916 was “a necessary reminder of the enduring significance of sea power to the defence and to the prosperity of our island nation”. “A century later”, he said “navies remain a way in which nations compete for regional dominance and demonstrate strategic ambition to a global audience”.

I agree every word that 1SL has said in the article today and I believe with a passion that we need to bang messages like this home again and again until those in authority and power finally get the message. I would have to say that having just 19 frigates and destroyers the Royal Navy has never over the past one hundred years been in such a weak position as it is today. The increased level of threats against us require a need for more capital ships, more capability and more manpower in the Royal Navy. We need enhanced capability in the ships that we build in order to counter what our would-be enemies have. We need these as a deterrent against threats, for the defence of our islands and trade routes, for the role that we play within NATO and for our other international requirements.

Before moving on allow me to add some of some other poignant remarks made in the article by Admiral Sir Philip Jones:

Today, as was the case a century ago, navies are a means through which nations compete for regional dominance and demonstrate strategic ambition to a global audience. It’s no coincidence that four of the fastest developing countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are building aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines, or aspire to do so. 

Britain no longer faces an existential threat from across the North Sea: but our security challenges are varied and global in nature, and they frequently confound our assumptions. Few predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea or that the Arab Spring would unleash such discord across North Africa. Meanwhile, instability across the Middle East shows no sign of lessening, and maritime territorial disputes are at play in the High North and the Far East. As an outward-looking trading nation, with partnerships and alliances throughout the world, all these security challenges have the ability to affect both our economic interests and our national security. 

For Britain, the sea is our frontline. In partnership with our allies, we must work to deliver both the soft touch of preventative engagement and the hard punch of military power, wherever in the world our interests are at stake. As we remember those from both sides who perished in the North Sea on May 31 1916, Jutland serves as a necessary reminder of the enduring significance of sea power to the defence and prosperity of our island nation.

We need Royal Navy ships and we need a lot more than we currently have. We need them for reassurance, to play a role in defence diplomacy and to show UK presence and that, as the sixth largest economy in the world, we wish to play our part on the global stage in terms of securing peace, stability and harmony. Most of all we need them for UK defence.

Today we are struggling with too little maritime capability. It is no use being reminded that soon we will have not one but two superb aircraft carriers in the fleet when the role that we play and the dangers that we face require more frigates and destroyers. The extra Offshore Patrol Vessels being built will of course be very useful but being designed for a different role these should not be seen as replacement capability for frigates and destroyers. We need to get on with the Type 23 replacement programme and stop wasting time and resource on delaying the start of building the Type 26 replacements. We also need to stop pushing programmes back and to get on with the Trident vote and the ultimate Successor replacement. The bottom line is that the need for more Royal Navy surface ships and trained personnel including increased numbers of trained engineers and technicians that enable the ship capability to do its job at sea. In a period that we might still call peacetime, the Royal Navy’s needs have probably never been greater.

European Defence Spending / NATO 2% GDP

On another subject I note that the Financial Times is today highlighting that defence spending by Europe’s NATO member states will rise [this year] for the first time in nearly a decade. The report says that European members of NATO (including the UK) spent $253 billion on defence last year compared with $618 billion spent on defence by the US and that, if the agreed commitment by NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defence was to be met that European NATO member states would need to spend an additional $100 billion annually on their militaries in order to comply.

Europe, and that includes the UK, needs a severe wake-up call when it comes to realising the need to spend more on defence. That 26 of the 28 non-North American members should spend little more than 30% of what the US spends is unacceptable. It is a myth that countries such as the UK are already spending 2% of GDP on real defence and we should be ashamed of ourselves for not taking the lead that we pretended we had on this issue following the Wales NATO summit of 2014. In any case, instead of each country ‘working toward’ spending 2% of GDP on defence those that have a reasonable level of choice in terms of how they spend their national wealth should be presented with an aim of spending 4% of GDP on defence.             

(Readers may also wish to note that on July 1st a 100th year commemorative service will be held at the Thiepval Memorial, Picardy, France which, designed by Edward Lutyens in 1932, is dedicated to the 72,195 British and South African servicemen who died in the Battle of the Somme. Subsequent to this event, British and French Governments will be hosting a much larger event to remember the total 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties of this awful 141 day battle in which so many lost their lives).

CHW (London – 31st May 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710-779785

UK Defence (253) – MOD Announces Final Piece of MFTS Jigsaw

The £1.1bn billion rotary wing contract awarded last Friday by the MOD to the Ascent partnership (a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International) completes the final section of the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) jigsaw. The MOD announcement confirming that Ascent will, from 2018, replace the existing Cobham run operation that provides Squirrel and Gazelle military helicopter training to the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury will in my view provide students with training capability that, if the first stage of the MFTS fast jet training process at RAF Valley is anything to go by, will be considered as being the best in the world. As part of the MFTS rotary training process announcement, new Airbus helicopters are to be acquired. This will be combined with considerable new infrastructure spend at RAF Shawbury and requirements for various ground based training and other equipment to be delivered.

The £1.1 billion rotary wing contract awarded by the MOD to Ascent on Friday paves the way for the design, delivery and management of military helicopter pilot and aircrew training services for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the Army well into the 2030s. The contracts will see delivery of Airbus H135 and H145 training aircraft, installation of new infrastructure and ground-based equipment at RAF Shawbury in Shropshire that will be used to train future Apache, Chinook, Merlin and Wildcat pilots and aircrew. The MOD has said that the latest rotary contract will support a further 220 jobs on top of the 280 that have already been established across the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS)

Winning the rotary training award is not only a tremendous vote of confidence in Ascent but should be seen also as the MOD meeting a very important milestone in military flying training. It has taken a long time to get where we are now and where, when all three sections of MFTS are fully up and running in 2018, military flying training in all its many aspects will be by then.

With the Ascent/1V (R) Squadron fast jet training system an already well proven concept of synthetic/actual flying training operation at RAF Valley there is not surprisingly much confidence that the additional contracts of both elementary and rotary training that have been awarded to Ascent during this year will do the same when these are fully operational some time during 2018. Whilst intended to work alongside actual flying training and new helicopters being acquired, rotary training will have at its roots a combination of synthetic based training working in conjunction with live flying training. It the latter category students will make use of a variety of new training devices and simulation activity aimed at providing them with far greater insight. As a means of training capability and in terms of achieving greater speed and efficiency in training together with affordability the combination of synthetic based training and live flying on an achievable 50/50 basis is the way forward. Not only will this combination provide students with a far better standard of training overall but also give them insight into a very wide array of potential mission based training as well.

It is now almost ten years since Ascent was selected as the UKMFTS Training System Partner following an initial competition. Whilst it would be wrong to say that getting to where we are now has been easy suffice to say that it is a partnership that has grown in stature because it is based on a ‘can do, will do’ approach. Arguably, MFTS being a Public Private Partnership between the private sector and the MOD, there are accusations that sometimes flexibility is not always evident. That issues apart, MFTS has to me already proved itself to be a very valuable training concept for the UK military and one that I believe will serve all three service elements very well in the future. 

Under the arrangements announced since the first MFTS agreement was announced in 2008 and those announced during this year mean that the Ascent partnership will run fixed wing, fast jet and almost all rotary based training for all three armed services, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army until approximately 2033.

My understanding is that the intention within the latest announcement is that rotary aircrew from within all three services will conduct basic and advanced training primarily at the Royal Air Force base in Shawbury, Shropshire and also at the Army Air Corps facility in Middle Wallop, Hampshire. Crews selected for mountain and maritime helicopter operation training will receive separate instruction at RAF Valley. The contract requires considerable infrastructure investment together with the supply of new ground based equipment at RAF Shawbury, a base which some of you will remember, that I visited during late March and that was discussed the following month in the UK Defence (249).

The final award of the rotary element of MFTS is great news for Airbus Helicopter as well and they have been contracted to supply the 32 twin-engine helicopters (29 x H135s plus three larger H145s) that will be required for actual real flying training element. The new helicopters will be supplied direct from the Airbus Helicopter manufacturing facility in Germany before then being transferred to the Airbus Helicopter site at Oxford airport for completion. The H135’s will be powered by the Turbomeca Arrius 2B2+ turboshaft engine and the H145’s with the Turbomeca Arriel 2E power plant.

The Airbus Helicopters will, from 2018, replace a total of 49 machines currently in use, these being 34 x AS350 Squirrel HT1 single engine machines, a helicopter that I recently had the opportunity of flying in at RAF Shawbury and which is recognised as having given sterling service to the Royal Air Force since the early 1990’s plus 15 Bell Helicopter 412 HT1 Griffin twin engine machines.

While MFTS as a whole may not yet have come of age it has, as I have suggested, more than proven itself as the means of future pilot and aircrew training.  

The initial fast-jet training award to Ascent dates back to 2008. In February this year the MOD announced that the second MFTS based award, that of fixed wing training, would also go to Ascent and that this would be fully operable from 2018. As with the fast-jet training award, the fixed wing training award will cover synthetic and actual training although in this case, at various key military sites across the UK. The fixed wing contract included separate contracts being awarded to Affinity (a joint venture between Kellogg Brown and Root Ltd and Elbit Systems UK) for the provision, maintenance and support of three different aircraft types that will be required. Elementary Flying Training under these contracts will be done on the Grob 120TP ‘Prefect’ before students move on to complete single engine training.

Now, the final piece of the MFTS jigsaw has been announced in the form of Rotary training being awarded to Ascent and that will also be ready for operation in 2018.  


The £6bn Public Private Partnership that was awarded to ‘Ascent’ in June 2008 included full infrastructure build-out at RAF Valley. The award required that ‘Ascent’ would be responsible for driving forward UK military flying training over the next twenty-five years.

Working alongside its partners and 1V(R) Squadron which comes under the responsibility of Air Officer Commanding 22 Group and the MOD the mission statement was to produce sufficient highly motivated, capable, agile and adaptable military aviators that the Roya Air Force and the Royal Navy would require.  Ascent quickly rose to the challenge of having responsibility for the provision of a significant level of military fast jet flying training capability and while there were delays in the MOD signing-off courses, some initial problems in respect of aircraft availability and other matters suffice to say that as the years have gone on this first stage of MFTS has been a great success.

The MFTS process required that there should be potential for not only addressing flying training needs of the UK military but eventually for export customer air forces as well. There is absolutely no doubt that foreign air forces that have visited RAF Valley are in-awe of what they have seen in the Ascent training process. Having spent a considerable amount of time over the years engaged in and supporting synthetic based training that intermixes with actual flying training I can hardly be surprised that air forces the world love what they see taking place in the Moran Building at RAF Valley and in the live Hawk T-2 training.

Arguably perhaps and despite words to the contrary the MOD has not fully embraced international defence training and its relationship to defence export requirement and success and the prosperity agenda as much as it should. I may hope that following expressions of understanding of the requirement in SDSR 2015 that this may now change. Clearly, with retention of QFI’s (Qualified Flying Instructors) having been an issue for the Royal Air Force at Valley since SDSR 2010 and with additional fast jet squadron number requirements having quite rightly been announced within SDSR 2015 there will be an increased need to train pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy over the next few years. It is abundantly clear that a gap exists in the number of trained pilots that the Royal Air Force currently has and an even larger one of what it will need to meet its fully capability requirements post 2019. This surely means, if we really are to train more students for our own needs and also embrace the needs and economic potential of international defence training, that there may need to be increased investment in MFTS on the part of the MOD just as it will also require all parties involved to be more flexible in the approach to future training needs.  

It is of course necessary to remember that MFTS was designed from inception as a tri-service training operation. It is a brilliant concept throughout and one that, when initial jet training and rotary elements are fully embraced in 2018 will serve the military well.  At RAF Valley it is worth noting that the Ascent based unit capabilities comprise two state-of-the-art CAE built full-motion simulators together with a range of computerised non-motion flying training devices that are backed up by an array of sophisticated computer based learning and information systems. The FMS (full mission systems) devices provide training of operational scenarios, simulation of synthetic based radar, surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles and even decoy systems.

The Moran Building, named after the late Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Moran who was at the time of his untimely and sudden death during a charity triathlon run six years ago this week the second most senior officer in the Royal Air Force, was built for purpose. It is bot spacious and light and with all class rooms being very well equipped and designed and complemented with various personal learning devices, hands on computer based training systems and simulation, there can be no criticism at the level of equipment capability that, together with the superb Hawk T-2, students have. Note too that at Valley as I assume will be the case at other parts of the MFTS process, many former RAF fast jet pilot are employed by Ascent.

As I wrote back in January 2012, from its inception MFTS was designed to be an incremental programme that would go live at various separate stages. Advanced jet training was first and in February we finally had confirmation that fixed wing comprising elementary flying training, basic single and multi-engine flying training would begin in two years. Last week we had the final piece of the jigsaw when the future planned solution for rotary wing training was announced.

MFTS has been well thought out and it has rightly taken a long time to ensure that we get it right. No one is criticising how fast jet pilots are initially trained or the superb rotary based training that will continue to take place at RAF Linton on Ouse and RAF Shawbury respectively for another two years yet. What they are saying is that what MFTS offers is a better, efficient and more affordable way of training the pilots and, in the case of rotary, aircrew for the future.

CHW (London – 23rd May 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710-779785