Royal Air Force modernisation and training experience a plunge
‘We will radically overhaul how we are organised and how we approach our people, our training, our bases, and the aircraft and equipment we operate. This will enable the RAF to be amongst the most technologically pioneering, productive and lethal air forces in the world for its size,’ the RAF proclaimed with aplomb as the UK published its Integrated Review (IR) in the spring of 2021.
Some 18 months later, it does not appear that the RAF has managed to rectify its equipment issues, let alone its pilot shortage and training challenges.
Putting the fact aside that the RAF – and the British Armed Forces as a whole – would run out of ammunition much faster than pilots or jets during a full-on conflict with a near-pear adversary, it is undoubtedly in a serious training predicament.
In August, newly emerged evidence around fast jet pilot pipeline issues first reported by Sky New showed that flying training is still in a quandary. But as Shephard wrote in August 2022, the issue around the RAF’s fast jet pilot training is multifaceted with no silver bullet at hand.
The findings are not particularly new, as major problems with the pilot training pipeline can be traced back to 2011 when the RAF axed around a third of its trainee pilots and froze recruitments amid a £300 million defence spending cut.
Reductions in spending also meant fewer assets and airframes across the force which led to fewer available platforms for training. The reinstatement of previously cancelled aircraft and the introduction of new platforms such as the F-35 further exacerbated the pipeline problems.
'The Integrated Review gave almost no detail on the RAF' — Justin Bronk, RUSI senior research fellow for airpower and technology
Last June, the UK Defence Committee held the first evidence session in its inquiry into aviation procurement which included a review of the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) in the context of the IR and the Defence Command Paper and the deteriorating security climate in Europe and how this will concern the RAF.
RUSI senior research fellow for airpower and technology Justin Bronk, who gave evidence on the Committee’s session, told Shephard: ‘The Integrated Review gave almost no detail on the RAF beyond “do more of everything” and to cut C130J in order to pay for modernisation.’
The RAF, however, has lost out on the IR and the uplifts for systems that would give them capability uplifts for the foreseeable future and would fill the gaps that the force currently faces will go into the Tempest/Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme.
Shortly after the UK Government published the IR, Air Chf Mshl Sir Mike Wigston said the RAF will invest a further £2 billion ($2.3 billion) in Tempest. The sixth-generation aircraft is set to replace the capability the Typhoon fighter currently provides and, according to Wigston, will help the RAF in building a fleet capable of fighting in a future digital battlespace.
The RAF is currently fully crewed as various aircraft is being taken out of service early. (Photo: UK Crown Copyright)
Although the UK is confident that a system demonstrator will fly within the next five years and Japan has also inched closer to formally joining the programme which will undoubtedly benefit the effort, Tempest is a long way from being a finished aircraft.
‘The problem is not getting something to fly that looks like a fighter – like the Russians have shown with the Sukhoi Su-57 -, it’s getting something to fly that actually works like one, with all of the complexity in terms of systems, particularly the sensors and the avionics,’ Bronk argued. ‘Especially in a stealthy airframe. That is just incredibly difficult to mature. And they’re [the RAF] trying to build a system of systems which no one has really done before.’
At the end of June, the UK government announced the country’s defence spending would be increased to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade in response to the growing threat from Russia. This would mean an extra £55 billion ($65.2 billion) if fulfilled. Defence uplifts of this nature are, however, becoming progressively less meaningful given the current rate of inflation, not to mention the declining political willingness to actually commit to this spending with the looming living crisis.
The IR very much decided that the thing to do was to take the risk on immediate current capability in order to develop future technology.— Dr Sophy Antrobus, a Freeman Air and Space Institute research fellow at King's College London.
Dr Sophy Antrobus, a Freeman Air and Space Institute research fellow at King's College London, who also gave evidence at the Defence Committee’s June hearing, would like to see signs that ministers are reviewing the IR given that Europe’s security and the RAF’s plans look way more perilous than they did in March 2021.
‘The IR very much decided that the thing to do was to take the risk on immediate current capability in order to develop future technology’, Antrobus explained to Shephard. ‘This was a government decision and I think the decision made around the RAF figures and numbers make sense if that’s the direction that they were given.’
The capability gaps created as a result were accepted by the MoD. ‘Nobody could predict everything that’s going on now, but given that whether Putin strengthens or weakens, Russia will become more of a problem,’ she continued. ‘I would very much like to have seen a review but that’s above the RAF.’
These are crucial aspects and will determine how the RAF will look like in the coming years. The MoD insists that there are ‘sufficient aircrew to meet our operational commitments’ but it acknowledged that there are challenges with the training pipeline.
Antrobus said the RAF is indeed fully crewed on the frontline currently as various aircraft are being taken out of service early and because people are not leaving the service due to uncertainty over the career environment in aviation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This, however, is likely to change swiftly once the civilian industry recuperates and begins its ransack.
To rectify the pilot training pipeline, the RAF would like to see more innovative technologies. (Photo: UK Crown Copyright)
Troubles with the pilot training pipeline are hardly limited to the RAF, of course. As a RAND Corporation research found, the USAF had reached its largest peacetime pilot shortage in 2000, citing retention issues as one of the main driving factors.
To rectify the pilot training pipeline, the RAF would like to see more innovative technologies, most notably simulators and synthetic training solutions, implemented into the curriculum. ‘Simulators are getting better and better, but there’s still no way to simulate an actual risk,’ said Bronk, who is also a pilot.
Simulations can help overcome some of the limitations of significantly reduced flying hours in real life, but there is no adequate substitution for experiencing the physically extremely demanding environment of fast jet live pilot training, he reiterated.
Antrobus, on the other hand, believes that many of the newer skills would not require pilots to be airborne for a significant duration of the training. ‘I think there's some quite radical stuff that can be done. That might not mean it's definitely more difficult or expensive but maybe it will always be longer.’
The RAF MFTS training system, however, is designed to be efficient, but it lacks sufficient flexibility, which would be a huge problem in terms of crew numbers if the UK (as a NATO member) were required to act against Russia, she added.
Even if moving a considerable amount of pilot training into the synthetic environment may alleviate some pressure and the RAF manages to accelerate its training pipeline, the potential exodus of RAF personnel can only be sorted with the one elusive thing: money.
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