Royal Air Force pilot training troubles not going away
A little more than a week ago, Sky News reported that it had seen documents proving the RAF’s flying training is still in a quandary, despite senior leaders being aware of the issues.
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.
Around the same time, the delivery of F-35s began to the UK and in 2015 the RAF decided to reinstate many of the previously cancelled capabilities. Concurrently, the increasing complexity of modern aircraft meant that the training emphasis has moved away from stick and rudder to mission management.
A newly emerging technical issue with the RAF Hawk T2 fast jet training aircraft’s Rolls-Royce engine is also expected to reduce the training pipeline capacity in the coming years.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and insufficient funding for the RAF in the past decade, exacerbated the problem, pushing the RAF pilot training pipeline into a perilous game of catch-up.
Technical issues emerged with the Rolls-Royce engines of the Hawk T2 that the RAF uses for fast jet pilot training. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)
Dr Sophy Antrobus, a Freeman Air and Space Institute research fellow at King's College London who gave evidence to the UK Parliament's Defence Committee on the country’s aviation procurement in June 2022, told Shephard that the messaging from the RAF does not indicate a sense of urgency.
‘I think what’s coming across loud and clear for me, is that the MoD said it is fully crewed on the frontline because of the various aircraft are being taken out of service early and because people aren’t leaving the service due to uncertainty over the career environment in aviation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,’ she argued.
In response to the initial report from Sky News, the MoD insisted there are ‘sufficient aircrew to meet our operational commitments’ but it acknowledged that there are challenges with the training pipeline.
This reaction, Dr Antrobus said, misses two important points.
‘All these young women and men through that training system who are hitting 30 now and are not getting onto the front line. This disrupts their careers,’ she explained.
*Data collecting began in 2015 and is not yet available for cohorts after 2019/20. (Table: Norbert Neumann, Data: UK MoD)
Even if the RAF is content with its current operational capabilities and a mass exodus of pilots is not likely despite the reportedly low wages in the force, there are other reasons for concern.
Antrobus said: ‘I would argue, and have made the point before, that goodness knows what might a weakened or a strengthened Russia do.’ She added that neither scenario is ‘attractive ... for stability in Europe’.
In 2019, Ascent Flight Training, the company running the UK’s Military Flying Training System (MFTS) programme, told Shephard it will increase the output and the capacity of the project by adding more aircraft, simulators, staff and students.
A couple of years later, the MoD said it will radically change the way it approaches the training pipeline to produce 50 fast jet pilots each year — an ambitious goal given that only 20 passed through in 2020.
The training is taking so long and there are so many pauses because of capacity problems.— RUSI senior research fellow for airpower and technology Justin Bronk.
Justin Bronk, RUSI senior research fellow for airpower and technology, also gave evidence at the Defence Committee hearing in June. He explained to Shephard that although the pilot backlog had been trimmed down since 2015 or 2016, this has not resulted in more qualified pilots.
‘A huge number of the training slots which are available are being used for refresher courses.’ Bronk said. ‘The training is taking so long and there are so many pauses because of capacity problems, that by the time someone gets a slot to go to the next stage, they’re actually out of the currency period for the skills they were trained on the previous stages.’
The biggest differentiator between a safe and competent and an expert pilot, Bronk explained, is the mental capacity that is built by currency training and the layering of skills from stage to stage.
The increasing complexity of modern aircraft means training has a different focus. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)
Again, the sophistication of modern aircraft and the multi-role nature of the RAF fighter fleet of Typhoons and F-35s only adds to this already complex syllabus.
Antrobus said that the RAF MFTS training system 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.
There is no evidence that the MoD has even begun seriously discussing the replacement of efficiency with flexibility in its programmes.
Bronk said that 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.
Another substantial burden placed on the RAF is the UK’s commitment to training fast jet pilots from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of the Typhoon sales deal. This further stretches the already prolonged RAF pilot training.
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