I was shocked and disappointed in equal measure when on Monday afternoon I received a call to inform me that the hugely important MOD ‘Air Support to Defence Operational Training’ (ASDOT) programme for which three individual international and domestic partnerships had been vying to win had been either postponed or cancelled.
The ASDOT programme was first announced in 2016 to be one that would provide air support services to the RAF, Royal Navy, Army and Joint Forces Command and that that the proposed starting date would be 2020. The programme envisaged and arrangement covering 10 years with the potential to be extended by another five years to 15 years in total – this being known as Phase One with an estimated value of £700 million. A surge requirement around 2027 was also envisaged and that would add another £500 million. All in all the programme was then valued at around £1.25 billion.
Make no mistake, ASDOT is now to be regarded as a key programme requirement within the UK defence procurement portfolio of requirements. Delaying ASDOT could cause a serious gap in combat air training and I regard this as not just being a ‘wish list’ requirement, rather it should be considered as being one that is vital in order to ensure that Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots are able to undertake sustainable combat air warfare training within a system that will use contractor operated ‘aggressor’ aircraft combined with a variety of ground based electronic warfare and other diverse elements that ready those in ships, in the air and on the ground to be fit for purpose in the event of enemy attack.
The current system, very ably operated on behalf of the MOD by Cobham for many years now, makes use of a fleet of modified but now elderly Falcon aircraft. RAF and Royal Navy Hawk T1 aircraft also play a significant role on combat air training and together these aircraft provide highly specialised support in respect of UK operational readiness training using accurate synthetic based replication of potential peer threats in a live environment. The Cobham operated training system combines technical expertise with world-class electronic warfare (EW) systems working in close support with the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre at RAF Waddington.
For as long as anyone can remember Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots and aircrew have been provided with a tailored, realistic and cost-effective threat training in partnership with industry. The system has worked well but has long been in need of modernisation and change that can make it more relevant and cost effective. ASDOT was designed to provide the armed forces with a modern, cost effective new generation threat training solution that would be designed to evolve modern training methods in order to guarantee operational readiness is maintained. In order to do this new aircraft and training systems would be required that would maintain realistic threat replication based around a mix of live and synthetic based training. ASDOT would also planned around phasing out of the fleet of Royal Navy Hawk T1 trainer aircraft currently operated by 736 Naval Air Squadron and that currently play the aggressor role in FOST (Flagship Officer Sea Training) ‘Thursday War’ scenarios. At the same time the RAF would cease to use Hawk T1 aircraft in the ‘aggressor’ training role.
Teams led by Babcock International Cobham and Leonardo have spent significant amounts of money planning and competing to win the ASDOT competition. Thus the announced sudden postponement of ASDOT by MOD particularly with the programme having already entered the negotiation stage and that takes no account of huge expense that each of the bidding partnerships have so far spent on the competition has caused more than a degree of angst. No reason, apart from suggestion of need to re-assess the parameters for the programme, have so far been given by the MOD.
The likelihood is that once again the MOD has underplayed its hand in respect of the ASDOT budget in its quest to put cost before actual capability requirement. There can be no fudging in relation to combat air training and no short cuts. I can have little idea what each of the individual bidder proposals had set out but to the best of my knowledge each had stayed within the parameters laid down by the MOD for the ASDOT programme. Clearly I am bound to be concerned in relation to any delay on ASDOT and while I understand the need to push programmes back in order to reduce costs I would also have to point out that having extended the life of the aircraft once remaining with the legacy system operated by Cobham cannot be taken for granted. I believe that the current arrangement with Cobham expires at the end of 2019.
Despite significant reshuffling of various partnership arrangements over the past three years, my current understanding on ASDOT is that Cobham is partnered with QinetiQ, Draken International (this is the only commercial air adversary provider to USAF) and 3DSL. Leonardo is bidding through the aptly named RED Aces partnership that includes Inzpire and a Canadian company known as Top Aces while Babcock International is teamed with Elbit Systems. A fourth group that included Thales and Textron pulled out of the ASDOT competition last year. In the meantime, QinetiQ has acquired 80% of Inzpire.
In summary I can do no better than repeat the conversation that I had with Andrew Chuter of highly respected Defense News yesterday and who quoted my views overnight:
“Whatever the reason behind the decision to halt the competition the MoD needs to rapidly get on with devising a new ASDOT plan. With carrier strike capability being rebuilt, the increased level of threats and more being asked from the RN and RAF, the need to ensure that we have sustainable air combat training has never been greater”
“Given the amount of work and cost put in by the various competing ASDOT project partnerships and the manner in which the cancellation decision was announced the MoD will need to work hard to rebuild lost trust. My hope is that cancellation of the ASDOT project has been reasoned by an understanding of the need to raise the level of capability requirement. Nevertheless, given the seriousness of need, the MoD must now treat the ASDOT requirement as an absolute priority.”
CHW (London – 21st March 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785