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Of Words, Deeds and Pilot Training By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt Mansion House Speech

He didn’t have to do it and he could just as easily have chosen other more concise aspects of Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy issues in his Mansion House speech on Monday, but Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt deserves huge praise for sticking his neck out and calling for a significant rise in defence spending.

Not surprisingly, former service chiefs, including former head of the Army, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, have been quick to praise remarks made by the Foreign Secretary and that emphasised a view that “the UK must decisively increase defence spending to cope with future threats around the globe”.

It almost goes without saying that most reading this commentary piece this morning will agree what the Foreign Secretary said on Monday evening. His view that defence requires a large amount of extra money to be provided in order to fund “new capabilities as opposed to simply plugging gaps” will also go down well albeit, not with Her Majesty’s Treasury.

They might also agree with his supposition that as we face “a more aggressive Russia and more assertive China that we simply do not know what the balance of power in the world will be in 25 years’ time” and which interpreted means that, we must ensure that we are able to meet any potential threat that we might face and be ready for it.  

I personally regard Jeremy Hunt as being perhaps THE most credible member of Mrs. May’s Cabinet right now. I have in fact long held that view and in moving him from Secretary of State for Health where he had presided very ably over such a vast range of public concerns and political attacks. His appointment as Foreign Secretary may have been caused by the need to sack his predecessor but it was both inspired and universally welcomed, particularly given that his predecessor was, in the eyes of many, a national embarrassment. Bottom line is that we should be extremely grateful that in the two years Mr. Hunt has been in the role he has very quickly been able to rebuild Foreign Office credibility internationally and also, restore confidence of its staff. 

Defence strategy and policy is to an extent dictated by Foreign Office strategy and policy. History tells us that one feeds directly off the other. Mr. Hunt’s wise words in regard of defence spending and the suggestion that we should be looking to increase spending toward 4% of GDP from the current fudged level of 2% spending is welcome not only for the underlying message it conveys but also in relation to foreign and defence policy convergence.

Some will no doubt prefer to argue that it is all well and good for Mr. Hunt to say what he did now but that even if he was to become prime minister at some future stage he would, as others including David Cameron did, struggle to get the notion of spending a lot more on defence through a Cabinet Office and Treasury structure that would, on present form, be totally against the idea.

Not that having been Foreign Secretary one would perceive of Jeremy Hunt ever becoming a Secretary of State for Defence, the one thing that we can be sure of from what Mr. Hunt has said is that that is a role that no future PM is likely to ask him to undertake!

But if by this sensible piece of diplomacy Mr’ Hunt’s message begins to resonate on others around him and if this might be considered the start of a fight back from defence itself to win greater public support then this speech will have been all to the good. Defence needs champions at a much higher level than the likes of you and me and it needs those that not only carry weight but that are in the public eye today and that are credible as opposed to being considered more likely to be yesterday’s men with a gripe. So, thank you for starting a new debate Mr. Hunt – one that we hope you will continue to foster as hopefully, continue to move up the greasy pole of politics.

“Aircraft Shortage Grounds RAF Trainees”

So [title above] ran an article published in the Times yesterday in which, as a result of another Freedom of Information’ request from a former RAF officer, we are reminded that 350 military pilot trainees comprising 110 officers that are signed up to fly helicopters for the Army and 240 signed up to learn to fly Royal Air Force and Royal Navy fast-jets have, whilst they await the various next and advanced stage moves within the flying training system, been posted to various military bases around the country in order undertake seemingly less important work whilst they await their turn in the training queue – which could well be another two or even three years.

Yesterday’s Times article followed a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast two months ago that had similarly looked at the issue of pilot training and, as a result, chose to lambast the MOD whilst at the same time attempted to place most of the burden of blame on industry.

MFTS (Military Flying Training System) is run by Ascent, a 50/50 joint venture partnership between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International. In fact, significant parts of the highly invested MFTS training system process do work well and others are now improving as transition from legacy to new allows.

However, I am clearly not about to defend those parts of the MFTS system that are not working to the level planned. Neither am I about to claim that industry is completely blameless either but that said, we must not lose sight that the reasoning behind the current MFTS based training system was an attempt by the MOD to cut costs. Combined with a number of other poor decisions made in relation to aircraft, available training capacity, numbers and overall capacity available, have unfortunately left us in the poor overall state that pilots training is clearly in. 

Bottom line is that while there is little wrong with the overall design of MFTS the way that it has been implemented and funded has left much to be desired. Capacity and availability are the two big issues that need to be solved – not just in trainer aircraft and helicopters but in the number of trained personnel available as well. As to the choice of aircraft and helicopters acquired to replace legacy aircraft, I can make no useful comment prior to my next formal briefing.   

That flying training remains in a mess is without any doubt and it is of course a regret that from the outset, the whole MFTS has been flawed through a lack of both funding and capacity availability.

However, that MFTS has been contracted out as a Private Finance Initiative is not the reason behind the system creaking at the gate. That the MFTS process has been spread over nine years and will not be complete until the Tucano based legacy system of training currently undertaken and RAF Linton on Ouse has completely transferred to RAF Valley is unfortunate. That because of the manner and timing of how MFTS has been introduced, including investment in new infrastructure, synthetic training aid and new aircraft, a transition period for each aspect of the training process has been necessary.

I make no excuses for the limitations for MFTS as it currently stands and I anticipate significant action by the military in order to rectify the situation. I hope that will include extra funding in order to raise the level so aircraft capacity and, given that the MOD failed to acquire sufficient spares and particularly engines for the Hawk T2 at RAF Valley, that aircraft availability can be improved.

I question too that while I understand that we need to increase the number of front-line fast jet and helicopter pilots why, in a period when a significant changeover was occurring during 2017/18, the MOD actually chose to raise the number of recruits entering the system during that time?

Clearly, the lean and efficient MFTS system and which based on a first requirement by the MOD to significantly reduce pilot training costs has backfired because of insufficient funding and capacity. There are just not enough aircraft and Qualified Flying Instructors – the former because MFTS was done on the cheap and the latter simply because with the high qualification that they attain as a QFI they can earn significantly money by moving abroad.

That the MOD is now sending would be pilots out to be trained elsewhere within the private or NATO training system as the article implies is all to the good. But having gone down the MFTS road in the hope of providing a world-class pilot training system everyone must redouble their efforts to get MFTS right.    

CHW (London – 15th May 2019) 

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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