Apart from an interesting and probably very timely article in the Sunday Times published over the past weekend – this being based around activities at RAF Marham which is the home/land base for the UK’s F-35 aircraft fleet and particularly of the work of the Officer Commanding 207 Squadron, Commander Tim Flatman, at the F-35 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit), I am afraid that when it comes to PR, the past few days have not been good for the Royal Air Force.
First things first – to the excellent Sunday Times article I would add only that along with ejector seat manufacturer Martin Baker and who are mentioned in the article as one of the many UK suppliers on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft of which high end equipment produced here in the UK equates to 15% of each and every of the aircraft, should be added the names of BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce who are major suppliers on the programme.
Thereby ends the positive because at the end of the last working week I see that Sky News chose to revamp what to many reading this may well sound a familiar story of woe – another claim that the “UK’s ability to train fast jet pilots is in crisis because of faulty aircraft, a need for more instructors and an influx of foreign students filling up the course”.
Apparently based on leaked documents including an internal memo seen from May this year together with slides taken from a meeting of senior Royal Air Force officers in July and seen by Sky News Security and Defence Editor Deborah Haynes, the main points reported are:
“An emerging” problem with the Rolls-Royce engine on the Hawk jet, used by fast jet recruits for training. It will “reduce pipeline capacity over the next three years”. This will increase waiting times for some trainees to join into training to about 12 months,. Concern about a “damaging drain” of qualified pilots who quit the RAF for better-paid jobs in industry, rather than staying in frontline or instructor roles. One slide said: “The draw is so great from such a small pool we are approaching a critical mass point”. But an RAF source said there was no ‘mass exodus’.
A commitment by the UK to train pilots from places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of a deal to sell the country’s Typhoon jets is absorbing already limited training space. This has made a number of RAF pilots wait longer to join the Operational Conversion Unit, which is the final stage of fast jet training, according to defence source.
Despite having 43 slots, only 11 trainee UK pilots are scheduled to go through the conversion stage of fast jet training to learn how to fly an F35 or a Typhoon this year.
Now, you might be surprised to learn that on this occasion I am not about to deny that any of the above elements as reported by Sky News are untrue. Indeed, an RAF spokesperson is quoted as saying:
“Whilst we acknowledge there are challenges with the training pipeline, we are working across defence, with industry and our international partners to improve the training experience and results for our personnel, including recruiting more instructors and actively managing timeframes for training” adding that “We continue to have sufficient aircrew to meet our operational commitments.”
Other details that apparently came from the leaked document suggested that
Some 347 trainees – more than half of 596 personnel in the total flying training system, including army and navy aviators – are waiting for a slot on a training course or are on a “refresher” course. Students must refresh their skills when the delay to progress to the next phase in their training is so bad that they are no longer current in what they already know.
Waiting times for flying courses vary depending on the type of aircraft.
The memo apparently suggested that “some 80 personnel will have to wait three-and-a-half years to gain multi-engine training, which is needed to operate transport aircraft such as the A400M and the C-17, Rivet Joint and Poseidon P-8 submarine hunter. Separately, there is a wait of between two-to-three years to learn how to fly a Chinook helicopter” and that “the delays have left dozens of personnel – dubbed “holdies” because they are on hold for a training course – dotted around RAF bases, other military headquarters and even at the Main Building in the Ministry of Defence in London” and to which the article has an RAF source quoted as saying “a lot of effort is being made to ensure those waiting are not wasting their time working a photocopier”.
Again, I will not deny that all the above made assertions are true although some do require a little more detail.
Firstly, in regard of “an emerging problem with Rolls-Royce Adour engine fitted to the Hawk training aircraft” let me be clear that the reality of the problem is that the MOD failed to acquire sufficient numbers of spare Adour engines when it acquired the aircraft 13 years ago. This is not a Rolls-Royce problem – it is a problem self-created by the MOD!
Secondly, the issue of poor retention of fast-jet trained pilots within the Royal Air Force is something that I first wrote on seven years ago. It is a problem that is as real as it is also unacceptable. I will make no specific comment on specialist or transport aircraft but I will remind that of the many hundreds of RAF Navigators who, following retirement of the last two RAF twin seat fast jets – Harrier GR9 (March 2011)and Tornado GR4 (2019) – either retired and left the service or, as many did, trained in other highly specialist roles, over half of those that remain are now aged over 50 and moving closer to retirement. Thus, the pool of highly skilled personnel resource is likely to get even thinner over the next few years. This is a problem for tomorrow that needs to be addressed today.
I recall that when he was appointed in 2019 by Secretary of State for Defence, the absolute top priority that was given to the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston to sort out was the issue of training.
There have of course been big changes many of which are positive. These include consolidation of all military flying training, investment in synthetic based training and the purchase of many new fixed wing aircraft and helicopter assets for actual flying training.
But the bottom line is that despite the excellence of synthetic based training, new aircraft and helicopter assets, the situation in relation to some elements of actual fixed wing training lacks resilience required of it and that following a raft of issues faced over the past three years, there is significant work left to be done to ensure that the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and others to whom commitments have been made by the MOD, get sufficient numbers of trained personnel that they require.
It is of course all too easy to blame the industrial element that was brought in to develop MFTS (Military Flying Training System – a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International) and that would in my view be wrong. It is of course perfectly true that MFTS got off to a very difficult start back in 2009/10 and that it has subsequent had many equipment and training related issues to resolve, but suffice to say that the fixed wing training problems that the Royal Air Force, and indeed, the Royal Navy as well as all military fixed wing flight training conducted under the MFTS banner today, can be blamed on years of Treasury orientated financial cuts and, though I am loathed to say this, on RAF policy and strategy and the low morale of those engaged.
Of course, the issue of training and building of necessary resilience and improving morale of those involved is also about the lack of financial resource, continual pressure to cut costs, and incessant penny pinching that the fixed wing training element suffers from. It is also about poor decisions made in the past and that the current training regime are of necessity, now all but forced to live with. Finally, it is about the people and members of the training squadrons themselves and who, as qualified trainers, feel the first hand problems most.
I am however not sure that I agree with the quote from a former RAF officer in Deborah Haynes well written article who said “The system has been paired back to only work if everything turns out perfectly. It is a system that only works if you keep throwing sixes” but for all that, I understand to a degree where he or she is coming from.
I am also very aware that if the Treasury, MOD, DE&S and the Royal Air Force, the latter being charged with responsibility for delivering all military fast jet training until qualified students move across to Typhoon and F-35 OCU’s, fails to get its act to together and to properly fund future training on a basis that is fully conducive to the requirements of a new and fast moving period of uncertainty in defence, the UK will find itself in serious trouble in respect of both people and capability required.
There is of course no easy or quick cure but the priority must first be based on a properly defined future strategy that fully takes into account more dangerous times and uncertainty that we are now living in. The second priority is to ensure that MFTS is properly funded and that it has the tools and assets that it requires. The third issue and one that sadly the latest version of the RAF Strategy fails to take into account, is listening to its people and rewarding them on the basis or merit.
Over the many years of doing what I do professionally and particularly since the appalling Defence and Security Review of 2010 (SDSR2010) and separate National Security Strategy in 2010 and 2015, the 2018 National Security Capability Review and many papers written by the RAF itself such as ‘Thinking to Win’ which I recall with some pleasure was about leveraging and exploiting the conceptional component – how the military instrument can be configured and employed in support of political objectives – followed by the 2017 Royal Air Force Strategy document, one that I played a part in formulating, followed by the Modernising Defence Programmes and latterly the Integrated Defence and Security Review, Defence Command Paper and Defence Industrial Strategy. Good, bad or indifferent, they all have only one thing in common – they are for whatever reason, obsolete.
Today we need new thinking and over the past few days I have read and re-read the latest version of the Royal Air Force Strategy and which is essentially written around elements of the 2021 Integrated Review process. It looks good on the surface and talks the talk of sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology, shaping the open international order of the future, strengthening security and defence at home and overseas and building resilience.
The ‘Context’ paragraphs suggests that:
“As we look to the future, the more complex and contested operating environment described in the Integrated Review will present us with significant challenges to our continued success. To remain credible and capable, and ranked amongst the most technologically innovative, productive and lethal air forces in the world, we must modernise continually. This is a challenge we are well prepared for and have already begun with our Astra journey towards the Next Generation Air Force. We cannot assume our current equipment and processes will remain relevant in the future, and we must radically overhaul every part of our business. We will become an increasingly digitally empowered force, investing in new platforms, whilst retiring legacy equipment with increasingly limited utility in the future operating environment. Alongside all of this we will continue to evolve how we recruit, retain and manage our workforce. Modernisation of the Royal Air Force’s professions reflects a shift towards the more specialist skills, knowledge and experience required to operate and succeed in the contemporary environment. Competition to recruit and retain skilled people is fierce; we must ensure that the Royal Air Force is an organisation that attracts the best from the society we serve. We must be diverse and inclusive and demonstrate our impeccable values and standards in everything we do”.
There is no mention of shortage of capability – no mention of capability that is being scrapped prematurely such as the RAF C-130J fleet and that will leave a serious gap in what the military require or the ridiculous notion on costs grounds of cutting planned E-7 capability to three from five originally planned aircraft, let alone that having scrapped or sold its Sentry E3-D and Sentinel fleets, UK will not have sufficient levels of ISTAR capability for several years yet. No mention of lack of Typhoon capability either as increased levels of deployment bite hard into the existing fleet. Had the strategy indicated a likely planned increase in Typhoon capability and realisation that cutting back planned F-35 aircraft orders to 48 needed to be immediately reversed, rather than pushing pretended benefits of the now out of date Integrated Review and how we value our people along with incessant and unnecessary diversity and inclusion issues on which the RAF hierarchy appears to be so obsessed, this particular document might have been better received.
Thus, as you will have concluded, this is where I seriously question the RAF Strategy document because while it moves through a ‘Value our People’ it talks predominantly here about the future and of how it attracts the best people and for them to achieve their ambitions and all but completely ignores the people that serve it today. It is all very well suggesting that “everyone across the ‘Whole Force’ must feel that their voice can be heard” but is there anyone listening?
The document states that the RAF is already an inclusive and diverse organisation and we know that under the current Chief of the Air Staff, there is a target to one day have an air force that comprises 50/50 between men and women. But that goal is and maybe many decades away and the reality is that many within the RAF today feel that they are ignored, that they are being left behind and cannot progress up the promotions ladder any further because of the perfectly sensible aims of diversity and inclusion to progress and that they have little choice but to leave the Royal Air Force when the opportunity arises.
I am saddened by what I see today and never thought that I would be saying this. The Strategy document says that “our people must feel proud, confident, empowered and most importantly, valued, not just for what they do but for who they are and what they bring to the Royal Air Force”. Fine words these are and I completely agree but the reality is very different and maybe it is time for the RAF hierarchy to stop pretending that all is well, to provide its people with genuine opportunities throughout their careers and to address the internal self-made problems that it clearly has.
(Commentary will appear less frequently during August whilst so many people on my list are away)
CHW (London – 8th August 2022)