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

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