It was with great pleasure that on Friday evening I attended the RAF Valley Annual Reception and which, in fine weather, witnessed the excellent RAF Band perform a superb Sunset Ceremony with Station Commander, Group Captain Nick Tucker-Lowe, taking the salute and a BAE Systems Hawk T-2 of 1V (Army Co-operation) Squadron performing a flypast with perfect precision and timing.
The RAF Valley Annual Reception was the forerunner to a weekend of significant events in North Wales that not only marked the formal ending of RAF 100 centenary commemorations but also, sadly in somewhat inclement weather, a huge parade through Bangor led by Station Commander and that was to be followed by a service of commemoration at Bangor Cathedral.
The long association between the RAF and city of Bangor goes back exactly one hundred years to 1918 with 244 Squadron flying Airco DH6 aircraft from Abergwyngregyn on anti-U-boat patrols. The strong connections endures to this day and in 1974 RAF Valley was granted the Freedom of the City.
The Parade and Commemoration Service at Bangor was sadly, due to the poor weather, to be without the planned flypast of RAF Valley based BAE Systems Hawk T2 aircraft from 1V (Army Co-operation) Squadron together with the first aircraft in XXV (Fighter) Squadron markings. Three other important events at RAF Valley took place over the weekend:
The first was dedication later on Saturday afternoon of a now restored and repainted, courtesy of BAE Systems and Babcock International, Hawk T-1 aircraft that will grace the plinth at RAF Valley as replacement Gate Guardian. The Hawk T1 (XX156) replaces a former RAF Hawker Hunter T8 aircraft, registration WV396 that has, since 1997, welcomed all to the important Royal Air Force base in Anglesey. With the Hawker Hunter moved to a nearby Museum and with grateful thanks to BAE Systems and Babcock International for the funding provided, the new Hawk T1 RAF Valley Gate Guardian, will grace the entrance to the base for many years to come.
The second event to which I refer occurred later that evening, this being the annual Battle of Britain Dinner was held at the Officers Mess at RAF Valley addressed by Air Marshal Mike Wigston, Deputy Commander Capability and Air Member for Personnel.
Finally, Sunday witnessed yet another important event at RAF Valley with the formal standing up of XXV (Fighter) Squadron, this being formed through splitting the existing 1V (Army Co-operation) Squadron into. The move which is to be much welcomed given the importance and pressure of work involved in training pilots, is intended to allow XXV (F) Squadron to take over the first phase of the Advanced Fast Jet Training (AFJT) course from 1V (AC) Squadron in order to provide greater capacity for training and to boost overall throughput of fast jet pilot training for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and IDT.
With new fast jet aircraft capability coming on stream including F-35 Lightning and that will along with the large fleet of Typhoon aircraft provide primary manned fast jet air power capability for the UK over the next thirty years the need to train an even greater number of pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and to speed up the process of training throughput has been well recognised by the MOD for several years.
The split of 1V (Army Co-operation) Squadron and the reformation of XXV (F) Squadron is intended to improve throughput of pilot training and knowing the operation well as I do, I am in no doubt that this is a move in the right direction in order to increase the number of trained pilots available.
Separately, under a £20 million programme of investment at RAF Valley that has included not just runway refurbishment and that of link taxiways but also a new section perimeter road, new visual aids, aeronautical lighting and signage, will see the base readying itself to take on much extended pilot training activities.
RAF Valley is an important part of the North Wales economy and the changes now taking place will see an increased number of military and civilian personnel working on the base. 2018 has in any event been a very important year for RAF Valley not only with completion of runway resurfacing, rebuilding of facilities that will now be used when the base becomes home next year to the second of the three stage Basic Flying Training Fixed Wing portion of the successful UKMFTS programme – in this case using ten new Beechcraft T-6C Texan 11 trainer aircraft that, through Affinity Flying Services which is a 50/50 joint venture between Elbit Systems UK and Kellogg Brown and Root Ltd – will through the main Ascent Flight Training partners (Ascent is a 50/50 partnership between Babcock International and Lockheed Martin) and that will provide pilot students with a training syllabus containing a mix of actual flying with sophisticated synthetic based training before they then move on to Advanced Fast Jet Training which is also based at RAF Valley.
The Moran Building which is home to 1V (AC) Squadron and from this week, to XXV (F) Squadron as well is a state-of-the-art synthetic based training unit that includes BAE Systems Hawk T-2 aircraft training simulators. From here pilot training operated by Ascent in partnership with the squadrons is designed to combine high quality definition synthetic training with actual flying training on one of 28 Royal Air Force Hawk T2 aircraft that are based at RAF Valley.
With the first batch of Texan aircraft now also delivered and work continuing on building and equipment infrastructure required together with syllabus requirements in order to accommodate second stage pilot training, the intention is that at some point during 2019 operation of fast jet training currently undertaken on Tucano T.1 aircraft at RAF Valley by 72 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse will, along with the Squadron, transfer to RAF Valley.
RAF Valley is also home to helicopter flying training where aircrew learn skills required for mountains and maritime flying and also serves as a base for the Mountain Rescue Service. A newly refurbished hangar at RAF Valley will soon be home to three new Airbus Jupiter helicopters that will be used to train pilots from all three Services and that is a separate part of UKMFTS planned training delivery – in this case rotary training working in conjunction with new training facilities at RAF Shawbury.
Separately and while not exactly a new story as I believe was being claimed by a leading newspaper yesterday, it is pleasing that, amid constant warnings of heightening tensions with Russia from senior UK military officers and others together with delayed realisation of the importance of maintaining operational training facilities that are used by the British Army in Germany and increasingly also, by other NATO members for joint training exercises, that Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, decided back in July that final implementation of plans originally announced back in SDSR 2010 to bring all permanently based Army personnel in Germany back home by 2020 would for the time being be scrapped.
That a small but important number of Army personnel and their families will now remain permanently based in Germany and that Britain now intends to retain the lead responsibility in respect of four base operation facilities currently used, three of which Moenchengladbach, Wulfen and Minden have been used either as a munitions depot, armoured vehicle storage or in the case of the latter, as a joint Royal Engineer/German Army amphibious capability unit, together with the largest, an extensive training facility using 45 square miles of land in Sennelager which is near to Paderborne, North Rhine-Westphalia used for training of UK armed forces and for joint NATO exercises should be seen as a common sense move and welcomed by all concerned.
Given the importance of the German facilities in respect of training and use also for combined multinational NATO exercises, while the numbers of British Army personnel are small today compared to what they had been a few years ago, the importance of retaining facilities and personnel will be seen as further demonstration of UK commitment to NATO.
Whilst the change of plan is in part being sold on the basis of a show of strength to Russia it will also be about sending a message to NATO allies that they must do more to counter the threat from Russia by spending more on defence. Importantly with the UK being NATO’s lead in Europe in respect of bridge laying facilities and the need to retain sufficient areas to train front line troops and engineers, facilities in Germany are second to none.
CHW (London – 10th September 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785