UK’s ability to train fast jet pilots in crisis as threats rise from Russia and China, leaked documents suggest | UK News
The UK’s ability to train pilots of fast jets is in crisis due to faulty aircraft, a need for more instructors and an influx of overseas students filling in the course, leaked documents suggest.
Royal Air Force (RAF) spend months – sometimes years – effectively flying offices instead of warplanes while waiting for training slots to open.
The delays could hamper the future availability of crews to operate the frontline Typhoon and F35 squadrons at a time of growing threats from Russia and China and with a war raging in Europe, defense sources said.
Pilots destined to train on other aircraft, such as military transport planes and helicopters, also suffer.
The backlog is so serious that the RAF is considering asking 30 of its recruits to voluntarily quit, according to an internal memo. He warned of a “reputational risk” if air chiefs took such a step. There is no suggestion of forced layoffs.
An internal memo from May and slides from a meeting of the RAF’s top officers in July, seen by Sky News, reveal:
• An “emerging” problem with the Rolls-Royce engine on the Hawk jet, used by fast jet recruits for training. It “will reduce the capacity of the pipeline over the next three years”. This will increase wait times for some trainees to join the course to around 12 months;
• Concern over a ‘damaging drain’ of qualified pilots leaving the RAF for higher paying jobs in industry, rather than remaining in the front line or in instructor roles. One slide read: “The drawdown is so large from such a small pool that we are approaching a point of critical mass.” But an RAF source said there was no ‘mass exodus’;
• A UK commitment to train pilots from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of a deal to sell the country’s Typhoon jets eats up already limited training space. This has left a number of RAF pilots waiting to join the Operational Conversion Unit, which is the final stage of their training, a defense source said;
• Despite 43 slots, only 11 British trainee pilots are scheduled to go through the conversion stage of rapid reaction training to learn to fly an F35 or Typhoon this year.
“Biggest shit in the RAF”
A serving officer familiar with the training pipeline said: ‘At the moment it’s the biggest crap in the RAF.’
Asking to remain anonymous, they told Sky News: “To have a selection process that comes right after the astronauts are selected, so you get the crème de la crème and then have them complete their flight training over a period of six to eight A year-long process, when it should only take two to three years, is absolutely crazy, especially when it comes to taxpayers’ money.”
A former senior Air Force officer, also speaking anonymously, agreed.
He called the situation “a scandal…a crisis”, saying it has been a chronic problem for almost 30 years that air chiefs have constantly tried and failed to solve.
But a second RAF source, on duty, defended the situation and strongly denied there was a crisis.
He said this year was always going to be a “challenge” as the Air Force prepared to retire a number of aircraft and integrate new platforms as part of modernization plans.
Instructors forced to take flight
Russia’s war in Ukraine added further pressure, with the RAF called upon to provide faster jets and crews to patrol the skies of NATO allies to the east of the alliance.
This meant that on one occasion instructors from the Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire had to take the time to pilot the rapid reaction alert jets rushing in to protect British airspace, which had an impact on some training courses which had to be rescheduled.
The source said a senior group of RAF officers meet three or four times a year to discuss all training issues.
It was so “in the dynamic market and the dynamic world of training – and all these challenges of multiple planes having different things going on or off with them – that we do it efficiently on a regular basis, not waiting for trouble happens,” the source said.
“We try to go uphill and manage people’s lives and help them through their careers.”
An RAF spokesperson said: “While we recognize there are challenges with the training pipeline, we are working across defence, with industry and our international partners to improve the training experience. and performance of our people, including recruiting more instructors and actively managing training timelines.
“We continue to have enough aircrew to meet our operational commitments.”
Long waiting lists for interns
The leaked documents gave an idea of the scale of the challenge.
Some 347 trainees – more than half of the 596 members of the total flight training system, including Army and Navy airmen – are waiting for a place on a training course or taking a “refresher” course. Students need to refresh their skills when the time to move on to the next phase of their training is so great that they are out of date with what they already know.
Wait times for flight lessons vary by aircraft type.
The memo says some 80 personnel will have to wait three-and-a-half years to acquire multi-engine training, which is needed to operate transport aircraft such as the A400m and C-17 and spy planes like the Rivet Joint and Poseidon. . submarine chaser. Separately, it takes between two and three years to learn to fly a Chinook helicopter.
The delays have left dozens of staff – nicknamed “holdies” because they are on standby for a training course – scattered around RAF bases, other military headquarters and even the main ministry building of Defense in London.
The RAF source said a lot of effort is being made to ensure those waiting are not wasting their time working at a photocopier.
The problems ‘dated back to the end of the Cold War’
The source gave examples of some officers being sent to take Russian or Arabic lessons and others learning to become an air traffic controller. This “gives everyone broader professional qualifications than they expected”.
But the delays also mean the average age of a newly qualified pilot in the RAF has risen to 29, from early to mid-twenties, changing the demographics of the service.
This could have “significant implications for future professional development, reach and retention,” one of the documents warned.
Defense sources said today’s training problems date back to the end of the Cold War, when successive governments sought to cut defense spending, taking advantage of a so-called “dividend of peace” and the false hope that Russia would no longer be a problem. threatens.
The size of the RAF, Army and Royal Navy, was reduced several times, including the number of pilots and warplanes, with front line squadrons reduced from around 30 to seven.
At the same time, plans were made to privatize much of the Army’s flight training.
Around 2008, a joint venture called Ascent, made up of American defense giant Lockheed Martin and its British counterpart Babcock, was awarded an initial 25-year contract to deliver what is known as the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) .
It is necessary to train a set number of recruits in different specialties, including fast jets, multi-engines – such as spy planes and transport planes – and helicopters.
But defense sources said the RAF – under pressure from the Treasury – continued to change its mind about the size of the training pipeline following a 2010 defense review which imposed further painful cuts in the Armed Forces and a 2015 exam that slightly adjusted the levels.
Sky News understands that some officers at this time preferred to pay a bit more to retain a reserve training capability to give the RAF room to recruit new pilots if a future government thought the Air Force had been too deeply reduced.
It would also create resilience to absorb the impact of any glitches with the training courses.
When not needed, the extra training slots could be filled by overseas crews under multibillion-pound deals to sell British-made Typhoon jets to international partners – a win-win.
However, defense sources said others within the RAF disagreed, instead prioritizing the Treasury-led need to cut spending and opting for a contract to train the minimum number viable drivers.
They won the argument, but seem to have created a system that struggled to provide the pilots needed in times of peace, let alone the UK having to go to war again.
“The system has been reduced to only work if everything goes perfectly,” said the former senior RAF officer. “It’s a system that only works if you keep throwing sixes.”