CAE Opens New Doors for UK Military Helicopter (MSHATF) Synthetic Training

In a world far more critical of resource waste, and one in which affordability must be a key element in any procurement process, far too little attention is paid to stories of success. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in the large number of successful Private Finance Initiatives (PFI’s) embraced by Government since the process was first introduced in 1992. One example is the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF) at RAF Benson and that is run by CAE.

The UK military may be struggling in various aspects of equipment capability and capacity availability, but by outsourcing and working in partnership with industry, huge strides have been made in mission readiness capability. PFI’s have played a large role in the process of overall change adopted by the MOD in the procurement process in recent years, and not only have the most successful created considerable cost savings they have also improved the efficiency of military operation. Up-front investment in the PFI process also means that the UK now has some of the most modern and efficient defence assets and support capability in the world. Not only has valuable taxpayer money been saved, but extensively adopting the PFI process across defence has also ensured that the UK has been able to retain mission leadership capability amongst its European NATO allies.

One excellent example of an activity area predominantly based on the PFI process, and in which the UK is now considered world leader in knowledge and capability, is military based synthetic training. Using the PFI process in the synthetic training model has already brought extensive benefits, not just to the MOD in terms of cost and extension of what can now be offered and achieved in terms of the training, but it is now also benefitting our NATO allies and defence export customers. Perhaps the most important point to make in relation to the PFI element is that what has now been successfully achieved in military based synthetic training environment could not have been done without industry, the MOD and the end user working together in partnership.

Regular readers of my defence commentaries will know that having put considerable effort into using and understand the benefits of military based synthetic training and the benefits that it can provide pilots and crews, particularly in respect of helicopter and fast jet training, that I am a huge supporter of the concept. Synthetic training has increasingly augmented actual flying training, but is already at a standard where it can replace live training in a range of scenarios, evidenced by the decision that Typhoon and JSF Lightening ll will not have twin seat aircraft for initial training; a future fast jet pilot will be solo on his first sortie on type, having undertaken conversion training in a simulator.

While overall use of synthetic training is still some way short of the stated aspiration for greater than 50%, the trend is increasing the live/synthetic balance with some helicopter training already above 50% of conversion training. While cost has in part driven the process of synthetic training forward, it is primarily the much broader spectrum of complete mission training that the synthetic based solution offers that is the most important element of this technology.

Having recently once again visited the superb CAE military helicopter synthetic training facility at RAF Benson (this is known as MSHATF – Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility), it is this vitally important element of synthetic based training activity that I will concentrate on here. Designed to provide a full helicopter training service, including all the simulator instruction, for Chinook Mk 2/2A, Merlin Mk 111 and Puma Mk 1 aircraft with training to include initial conversion to type, continuation, pre-deployment and mission rehearsal, the 40 year PFI contract which had an initial capital value of circa £100m was let in 1997 and commenced in 2000. CAE owns 76% and HICL 24%. The contract runs to 2037 with a review period due in 2017. Since the contract began a number of changes have been made to reflect alterations to rotary capability and requirement and which the training simulators are required to replicate.

Accordingly, further significant investment since the start of the training programme has led to 43 major updates across six simulators to ensure the synthetic training has kept pace with the rapid advancement of the UK Support Helicopter Force aircraft through the period of the contract thus far. This has allowed a significant amount of mission training to be undertaken on the simulator in preparation for exacting operations in, amongst others, Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that UK operations have suffered very few helicopter incidents, particularly in the context of the incredibly complex and demanding nature of the missions undertaken on a daily basis, is testament in my view to the fantastic skill and bravery of the UK helicopter crews. It is of course no coincidence that since 2000 synthetic based training has played a significant part of helicopter crew preparation.

Founded in Canada in 1947 and with annual revenues over $2bn, CAE has over 8,000 employees working in 30 countries. A world leader in providing simulation and modelling technologies and in providing integrated training solutions for military and civil aviation disciplines, CAE has over 1,300 flight simulators and training devices in operation worldwide. Overall I would estimate that the company is responsible for the training of 100,000 pilots and crewmembers annually and has a customer base numbering over 50 national defence forces worldwide.

Current UK air based synthetic defence training programmes for which CAE provides equipment, or the full mission training requirement include the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility, (MSHATF) at RAF Benson (this includes six full mission simulators including 3 Chinook, 2 EH101 Merlin and one Puma Mk 2 plus six computer based training classrooms that are used to provide conversion and continuation training for UK Joint Helicopter Command support helicopter crews. In addition to MSHATF CAE is responsible for the Royal Navy Merlin full-mission simulator, tactical mission trainer and through-life support; the Royal Navy Lynx Mk 8 full-mission simulators, and cockpit procedures trainer; Royal Navy Sea King full-mission simulator support; Royal Air Force C-130J Hercules full-mission simulators, flight training device, maintenance part task trainers and rear crew trainer based at RAF Brize Norton and under the UK MFTS programme, Royal Navy rear crew training at RNAS Culdrose. Last but not least, the Hawk T2 full mission simulator based at RAF Valley.

MSHATF statistics make very interesting reading. The six aircrew training simulators clocked up 9,000 hours of use last year for the UK MOD, with a further 2,000 hours provided to third party users such as the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Translated this can be said to be equivalent to operation of approximately 26 RAF aircraft in terms of output but importantly it represents a saving to the MOD of over £1bn through the contract to date. Usage of the MSHATF facility has in fact grown by around 8% year on year over the last two years alone. Average aircrew use is 60% greater than the Joint Helicopter Command mandated minimum.

Pleasingly the National Audit Office not only stated that MSHATF was a success when it reviewed a raft of defence related PFI programmes, it stated that it was “delivering the intended service to users and that the PFI contract as a whole was working well. It went on to remind that the MOD must ensure that the simulators are kept current and in line with inevitable changes to equipment as they occur. As a result of this the initial capital funding has increased and a great many enhancement changes have been made.

Revisiting the MSHATF facility after a four year absence, and seeing the considerable number of enhancements and investment made at the RAF Benson facility, many of which CAE has undertaken of its own volition, was fascinating.

While the facility is contractor owned and operated it uses only ex-military instructors. The MoD pays for the system on a by-the-hour basis with the based on a graduated performance regime with guaranteed minimum usage. There is also built into the MSHATF contract a spare capacity clause that makes capacity not required by the MoD available to third party users, this being subject to a gain share by the UK MoD.

My understanding is that the average amount of MSHATF availability currently being acquired by the MOD has been running at around 9,000 hours per annum and that approximately 2,000 available hours are now being sold to third party users. International third party users of the AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin synthetic training and simulation facilities at MSHATF have included military personnel from Canada, Denmark, Portugal, Japan, Italy and Algeria. The same applies for Boeing Chinook synthetic training and simulation facilities for which training has been provided to the military of the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Singapore. For the Airbus Puma helicopter, training has been sold to Oman and Jordan. Third party usage of the superb MSHATF facilities at Benson has represent not only first class training for helicopter pilots but it has also represented a huge saving in cost for the MOD.

It is true of course that over the past few years’ doubts have been expressed about the quality and value of some Private Finance Initiative (PFI) or Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements. However, the reality and experience, according to both HM Treasury and the National Audit Office (NAO), is that traditional procurement methods are generally more expensive than PFI/PPP procurement. While it is probably true to say that some NHS based PFI’s have fallen short of expectation in terms of savings in cost to the taxpayer and in quality of operation, I consider that quite the opposite is true in regard of defence related PFI/PPP contracts.

Available NAO statistics back my own contention up by suggesting that 81% of public bodies involved in PFI/PPP projects are achieving satisfactory or better value for money for the taxpayer than by using a traditional procurement basis. Only 8% of projects were delayed by more than two months according to the NAO while HM Treasury has stated that 88% of PFI/PPP projects have been delivered on time or earlier, and 78% have so far been delivered to the price agreed at contract. When the statistical history of project cost overruns is looked on a pre PFI experience the figures are even more startling with cost overruns on pre PFI contracts running at a hefty 73% whereas those within a PFI/PPP arrangement are on 22%. The same is true in terms of timeliness of delivery with statistics showing only 30% satisfaction in the pre PFI/PPP experience category but 88% on the post PFI/PPP experience category.

PFI’s do work then and they offer both manpower savings and importantly for the customer, transfer of risk. State of the art facilities as exampled by the MSHATF facility at RAF Benson, the superb CAE synthetic based training and simulator facilities that are housed in the Moran Building at RAF Valley covering the MFTS Hawk T2 programme that is run by Babcock International and Lockheed Martin in conjunction with the Royal Air Force 1V(R) Squadron.

Clearly state of the art facilities and synthetic training devices and simulators that might well have been unaffordable under conventional procurement methods take time to bed in. There can be problems particularly during the initial phases of implementation and, as synthetic training is combined with actual training, maybe also in terms of aircraft if for instance there is a delay during the release to service period. But most usually because the desire of all sides to succeed is so strong issues that do emerge are sorted out by all partners involved working together.

The live now, pay later culture which is often politically attractive has in the case of MSHATF been translated to one of ‘pay for what you use’. There are many other positive points to be made about the benefits of PFI arrangements to the MOD such as that they offer a single point of contact during the whole contract life. This is beneficial in another way too as it provides focus when equipment upgrade or other changes are required.

Improved timelines for delivery of training devices, minimal customer interference after the design freeze and that no payment is made to the contractor until the training service and courses are accepted by the MOD and fully delivered are additional virtues. Most of all perhaps is knowledge for the end user that delivery of synthetic based training will always be at a constantly high standard.

So what is it that in the context of rotary based synthetic training using state of the art simulation can provide? Firstly let us look at the advantages of simulation-based training verses actual and live. Synthetic training can be said to be safer, more economical (costing approximately 10% of actual rotary flight training experience) and it is more environmentally friendly. It is also comprehensive and highly immersive in terms of giving operational mission experience, flexible and adaptable to any changed requirement. It is also accessible and to an extent portable just as it is interoperable and easily deployable. Last of all, as I witnessed again in the ‘Thursday Wars’ experience on an earlier visit to RAF Benson, it enables realistic mission planning and rehearsal capability.

Having personally done the EH101 Merlin simulator in both fixed and full motion on three previous occasions, and watched the whole synthetic based training process in detail, I can speak to the quality of training provided. Exactly the same is true of synthetic based fast jet aircraft simulation which I have also gained hands-on experience and can speak to not only the importance of this but its huge value.

Immediate pre-deployment training ahead of rotary pilots going into theatre is yet another interesting facet that can and is be provided by the MSHATF synthetic training facilities at very short notice. This latter potential and what it can bring to mission capability is a brilliant addition to the training portfolio. The reality is that a Chinook pilot now required to go into theatre can at very short notice, due to the excellence of the MSHATF facilities, be whisked up to RAF Benson for a refresher covering all forms of pre-deployment training required before taking on full flight mission responsibility.

The future of all military training whether air, sea or land will increasingly move more toward being synthetic based. It has taken time to get where we are and there is still more work to do in terms of adjusting and speeding up the cultural shift from one of distress and moderate acceptance that synthetic based training has a part to play in the future of training overall, to one that accepts that provides so many advantages to those being trained and in terms of cost.

The desire to continually improve and deliver a broad spectrum of training through the synthetic process is writ large in stone. In the case of MSHATF the ability to provide Limited Combat ready operational work up, continuation training, tactical development, pre-deployment training and full mission rehearsal show just how far the synthetic training process has come.

CHW (22nd September 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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