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

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