Just when some of those within Defence Headquarters might have quietly hoped that they had successfully managed a way through the imposition of self-set and seemingly illegal diversity-based recruitment and training policy targets for RAF pilot training and that led to the well-respected senior RAF recruitment officer resigning from her position in the surely correct belief that she was being forced to impose targets that were both unlawful and irresponsible, we learned from Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence yesterday via Deborah Haynes of Sky News that the UK is now in possession of more F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft than it is of pilots to fly them.
Sadly, such appalling news comes as little surprise particular particularly when, notwithstanding training aircraft still in the US and new F-35 aircraft currently on order from Lockheed Martin, there may be as few as 23 or 24 RAF/Royal Navy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft currently based in the UK from the first batch of 48 aircraft that are all likely to have been delivered by 2025/6.
Worse perhaps is that with RAF Typhoon aircraft capacity stretched as the capability is deployed internationally and the geo-political outlook continuing to worsen, to be informed that there is a shortage of trained F-35 pilots to compound what I believe are shortages in numbers of trained Typhoon pilots is and should be a huge cause for concern. Whilst the primary issue relates to not enough pilots moving through the training system, retention of existing pilots is another issue that I will come back to in a later piece.
Having followed it closely since changes in how the military goes about pilot training started to occur twenty years ago, it is with much sadness and regret that I am forced to conclude what an absolute disgrace military flying training system has been allowed to become over the past three years.
Yes, some problems, such as retention of elderly Tucano aircraft that should have been replaced many years before they actually were in 2019 together with initial problems with the Texan T1 replacement aircraft in regard of operation over water compounded by other unforeseen issues in respect of the Elementary, Basic and Fast Jet Flying Training Systems are not ignored and are no fault of the current RAF regime.
In addition, we have more recently had news of a potentially serious fault in a component supplied by Safran on the low-pressure compressor of the Rolls-Royce/Safran Adour 951 engine used to powers the RAF Valley based fleet of T2 Hawk aircraft has further compounded problems.
Again, technical problems such as these whilst often very serious are not untypical of those that appear during the mid- life of military aircraft capability. Suffice to say that while some of the aircraft procurement choices may be questionable, many problems within the Military Flying Training System have been successfully resolved by very professional and dedicated personnel working within the various partnerships between the RAF and industry but one that has not is that air power capacity and capability including shortages of pilots remains a very serious issue to resolve as does a lack of funding and I dare say, the MOD as so many times in the past attempting to do things on the cheap.
Having an efficient and fit for purpose military fast jet flying training system is absolutely crucial for the future mission capability that the RAF and Royal Navy require and need to call on in order to undertake UK and NATO allied mission requirements.
What we have now learned from the Secretary of State for Defence in regard of the UK now having more state-of-the-art F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft than it does pilots to fly these will no doubt be regarded by many as a telling story of ongoing failure – one that just three years ago was ordered to be prioritised as a matter of huge concern by the then Secretary of State for Defence and yet three years on the situation appears to be worse.
That after years of underfunding military flying training requires to be further prioritised and maybe requires more help to be provided by industry also suggests to me that RAF training strategies should better be placed in some kind of ‘special measures.’.
Whilst I accept that over the past year considerable work has been going on to sort the raft of issues by those charged with responsibility for training, having been prioritised as a number one issue to resolve back in 2019 and with far too little visible progress obvious since then, remarks by Secretary of State surely confirm that the RAF requires additional assistance and funding to ensure that the UK ensures that it has sufficient fast jet pilot numbers.
Bad enough that with the now abandoned self-set RAF diversity and inclusion target policy requirements that during 2019 to 2021 led to what many term as having been a ‘positive action’ based selection process which in effect meant that the number one priority for the RAF military jet flying training selection process required to favour diversity and inclusion policy over and above those of placing ability and merit as being the foremost requirement, many fear that results in respect of culpability for the damage done within the RAF from what I assume is a still ongoing internal inquiry could well be swept under the carpet. I sincerely hope not and it is a matter of personal regret that, as yet, no-one has taken responsibility for the considerable damage done internally within the Royal Air Force, to its people and to internal morale by falling on their sword.
You may well ask why adopted RAF policies of recruitment and training based on positive action which could, if I am correct in my view, only be legally applied if the selection process adopted for candidates who met the minimum requirement as being of equal merit. Even so, such policies would surely rule out preferential selection of what may be considered the best candidates. Surely the RAF should, as it has through most of the past seventy years, be seeking the absolute best of those who seek to join?
Perhaps what I probably find most upsetting apart from the impact that these poorly thought through internally driven diversity and inclusion based policy targets have, inadvertently or otherwise, had all the way through the RAF promotion system and led to the Force losing many still very capable and senior people is that as far as I can see, policies adopted appear to have been internally directed without explicit political direction.
CHW (London – 2nd November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785