Pragmatism as a word is defined to mean an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of success of their practical application. Put more simply, although strangely somewhat at odds with the above description, pragmatism may also be defined to mean dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a manner that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.
I have long been in great admiration for what has been achieved over the past fifteen years in respect of synthetic based training at UK air bases such as RAF Coningsby, RAF Valley and at RAF Benson. Over that period, I have had the pleasure of visiting and observing the quite amazing year by year progress made in synthetic based training across the whole military domain.
The benefits of state-of-the-art immersive synthetic based training in the fast jet community speak for themselves and the benefits in regard of utilising a higher mix of synthetic based to that of live training has not only allowed more pilots to be trained but reduced the overall cost of training an individual pilot. I am certainly a convert and the underlying benefits that synthetic based pilot training have provided and that include speed, depth and overall efficiency of pilot training and of how this has scoped and allowed for improvement in in the overall concept of multi-role combat operations training are certainly not lost on me.
Immersive synthetic based military training is not just the preserve of the fast jet pilot community. Over the past ten years it has been extended across all aspects of helicopter training including heavy and medium lift and what I will term as front and back office and maintenance, and across heavy lift military aircraft including A400M. I have also witnessed in the US the excellent synthetic based ‘maintainer’ training on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and to that end, here in the UK at RAF Marham, BAE Systems is leading a 170+ strong team at the base to enhance maintenance, mission planning and training services for the UK’s F-35 Lightning fleet.
Some background as to how we have arrived at the current status may be useful and on that subject suffice to say that under what is known as the Military Flight Training System (MFTS) concept that has evolved in the UK since 2007 and which from the outset was designed to provide a streamlined flight training solution across all flying elements of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army Air Corps and also over time to consolidate all phases of aircrew based training and instruction – the bottom line is that although one cannot deny that there have been there have been issues such as retention of sufficient ‘trainers’ and the length of time required for ‘trainers’ themselves to be trained, MFTS must now, in my view, be regarded as a great success.
For the record, MFTS is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and Ascent Flight Training – the latter being the operating company for military air training and that is a joint venture partnership between Babcock International and Lockheed Martin. Founded in 2008, Ascent has had a very difficult task to establish what was at the time of its formation perceived as an extraordinary vision. Along the way, Ascent has needed to break down barriers and many deeply held cultural misgivings in respect of an acceptable balance being achieved between synthetic based and actual flying training.
Further emphasising the point about the need to keep abreast of new and exciting technology available, I note that Ascent is now trialling some Sprint Virtual Reality based flight training devices from CAE for fast-jet pilot training. Virtual Reality is without doubt the next step forward in order to further improve available flight-based training in order to further increase capacity of training courses and to enable more students to be fast-tracked to graduation.
Ten years ago, the aspiration was to achieve a 50/50 balance between live and synthetic based pilot training but suffice to say that today, in many aspects of military based flying training, the reality is that synthetic based training has already gone higher than the original aspiration. Indeed, I understand that the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and due in part to increased availability of simulators, the balance may already be in excess of 25/75 in favour of synthetic based training over that of actual flying training and maybe even higher. In the process, thousands of hours costly live flying training per student has been saved.
I continue to be impressed and in respect of Typhoon conversion, utilisation of immersive synthetic based training has quite probably already enabled a 30% increase in the numbers of pilots trained and flying their first actual mission solo, this has likely been achieved in half the time that it used to take.
My job of course is to be balanced and I readily accept that the cultural battle in respect of synthetic based training and the balance between this and actual flying training has not yet been fully won over. Immersive synthetic based training has many fans but it also raises shackles of those who are not convinced of its benefits.
At the Chief of the Air Staff’s Annual Conference this year and which I attended Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said “I do not exaggerate when I say that I can see a future where almost all training, force generation, and mission planning and rehearsal is done in a synthetic environment, preserving our real world activity for live operations or strategic signalling.” He also talked also about the RAF’s new distributed flight simulation system Gladiator and which he said, is intended to be initially operational by the end of this year. This he told the audience, would also be extended with a £40m investment from the Typhoon to include other RAF and UK platforms such at the E-7A Wedgetail, Protector and even the Type 45 destroyer, allowing large scale virtual training to take place and that this would also be linked to the NEXUS combat cloud.
In the weeks ahead and following a number of intended location visits, I will be writing further on aspects immersive synthetic based military flying training. But I do accept that there remain misgivings – not in relation to the technology or ultimate benefits provided, particularly in respect of full combat mission-based training, but in relation to achieving the right balance between actual flying and synthetic based training.
Richard Gardner, a former highly respected editor of the Royal Aeronautical Society ‘Aerospace’ Magazine is but one who has expressed doubts. I make no further judgment above and beyond what I have already said above but in this the first commentary on the subject of immersive synthetic based training from me for some considerable time, in order to maintain balance I have, with his permission, copied below a letter published in the October edition of the magazine from him and that was in response to an article written by Tim Robinson FRAeS , Editor of ‘Aerospace’ in the September edition:
In your excellent report on the recent Global Air Chiefs Conference you mention that not every participant shared the level of enthusiasm for comprehensive synthetic training for fast jet pilots that was expressed by our own air force leadership.
I note that the Chief of the USAF, General Brown, was keen to point out that without everyday real flying operations being conducted then what are the ground crews and maintainers (and presumably everyone in the airfield support and management chain) supposed to do?
But what wasn’t mentioned however is the potential negative impact on motivation that an extreme virtual training vision might have on recruitment for future fast jet pilots, who will face spending their most important flying experience-building years just looking through VR headpieces and sitting in simulators in containers or classrooms all day long! If you want to become a fast jet pilot you won’t be attracted by the prospect of hardly ever flying in a real aeroplane, except in a war situation.
And what about the real risks that real flying entails? Student pilots know they can’t be killed in a simulator. Surely the less time that they are allowed to actually deal with real emergencies, the greater the chance that real accidents will increase, wiping out savings as more aircraft will be written off. Of course, the new generation of air warfare will require new training methodologies and a clear focus on information enabled effects, but we will still need enough pilots and aircraft numbers to retain a credible air force.
The 2015 announcement that Tranche 1 Typhoons would be retained to provide an updated aggressor training capability was well received. Still highly capable in the air defence role, they could also provide a useful back-up to the multi-rolled Typhoon numbers in service, but now that plan has been abandoned – a double loss.
Over-reliance on artificial intelligence and autonomous unmanned air vehicles can’t fully substitute for the serious shortfall we now face in combat aircraft numbers. Treasury-imposed defence cuts are creating more and more capability gaps. The recent retreat from Kabul, where NATO pleas to the US President to extend the withdrawal timescale were ignored, shows that if a truly Global Britain is to emerge as a serious defence partner then it is hugely self-limiting to be totally dependent on US co-operation, which might not always be forthcoming. Other major air forces are expanding not shrinking.
This radical 2040 vision of the future has many admirable features but the all-virtual training initiative might well turn out to be as misguided as the Duncan Sandys prediction in 1957 that manned fighters won’t be needed in the missile age. That decision wiped out nearly all our advanced new combat aircraft programmes and the UK aircraft industry never fully recovered. And the associated abolition of our reserve RAF and RN fighter squadrons was an example not followed by the USAF, who to this day maintain highly effective, well-equipped and motivated Air National Guard reserve squadrons.
I had the privilege of flying on an ANG training sortie and the part-time air crew were as fully professional as might be expected, especially highly motivated to be able to make a regular contribution to NATO operations in contrast to their regular work, which ranged from commercial flying to fixing automobiles and delivering rural post! Real training in the air is as essential as ever, even in the digital era.
Richard Gardner MRAeS, Chairman Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
CHW (London – 12th November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785