Lack of trained pilots can hit British Typhoon and F35 squadrons, leaked memos

The UK's commitment to training pilots from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of an agreement to sell the country's Typhoon planes is using already restricted training space. According to a defence source, this has caused a number of RAF pilots to have to wait longer to enter the Operational Conversion Unit, which is the final step of their training.

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is the Co-Founder of the Online Military-Reforms Think-Tank 'Mission Victory India' (MVI), Correspondent at Indian Aerospace & Defence Magazine, and Contributing Editor at Frontier India. He has worked extensively as a Defence Journalist in print and online media with stints at Fauji India and EurAsian Times.

British media organisation Sky News cited leaked papers indicating that the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) fast jet pilot training backlog has developed into a full-fledged crisis due to a slew of “emerging” issues.

Delays in pilot training might affect the availability of crews to fly Typhoon and F35 squadrons, according to defence sources. Pilots trained to fly military transport planes and helicopters, as well as Royal Navy and Army aviators, are affected by the issue.

According to leaked documents, 347 trainees, dubbed “holdies,” are currently waiting for a spot on a training course or a “refresher” course. This is more than half of 596 individuals in the UK aviation training system. In addition, around 80 individuals will have to wait three and a half years for multi-engine training meant for operating transport aircraft such as the A400m and the C-17. Crews of Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft and Poseidon multi-role maritime patrol aircraft face the same challenges. Recruits must wait between two and three years to learn how to operate a Chinook helicopter.

Although there has been no mention of forced layoffs, the RAF is considering asking up to 30 of its recruits to leave willingly, according to an internal document from May and slides from a meeting of top RAF officials in July, as published by Sky News. If such an action were taken, one note warned of a “reputational danger.”

Backlog reasons

The UK’s commitment to training pilots from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of an agreement to sell the country’s Typhoon planes is using already restricted training space. According to a defence source, this has caused a number of RAF pilots to have to wait longer to enter the Operational Conversion Unit, which is the final step of their training. Despite having 43 slots available, just 11 UK student pilots are expected to go through the conversion stage of fast jet training this year, learning how to fly an F35 or a Typhoon.

Another worry is an “emerging” problem with the Rolls-Royce engine on the Hawk jet, which is utilized for training by fast jet recruits. It plans to “decrease pipeline capacity over the next three years.” This will result in a 12-month wait for certain learners to begin the course.

A third cause is the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The RAF has been under pressure to deliver additional rapid planes and crew to NATO countries’ airspace. Unnamed officials have given the example of instructors at the Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Coningsby having to rearrange their training sessions in order to fly the hastily scrambled Quick Reaction Alert planes. 

According to reports, a senior group of RAF commanders meets three to four times a year to discuss developing training difficulties.

According to defence insiders, some of today’s difficulties may be traced back to the Cold War’s ending. They criticized successive UK administrations for attempting to decrease military spending by continuously reducing the number of the RAF, Army, and Royal Navy, with frontline squadrons, reduced from about 30 to seven. Furthermore, the report stated that plans had been developed to outsource a large portion of the military’s aviation training.

The training mentioned above flaws has resulted in shifting demographics throughout the RAF. As a result, the average age of a freshly trained pilot in the RAF has grown from the early to mid-20s to 29, which might have “major consequences for future professional growth, reach, and retention, according to one leaked memo.

‘Biggest F*** Up in the RAF’

An unnamed former senior air force officer called the training scenario “a scandal and crisis,” saying that it was not new and had been a persistent problem for over 30 years.

An unnamed former senior air force officer called the training scenario “a scandal and crisis,” saying that it was not new and had been a persistent problem for over 30 years.

It’s the biggest “f*** up in the RAF” right now, said a serving officer, adding that to have a selection procedure second only to astronaut selection, so you get the top notch recruits, and then have them finish their flying training over six to eight years when it should only take two to three years, is insane, especially when taxpayers’ money is involved.

RAF denies problems

According to an RAF spokesman, despite the challenges with the training pipeline, the service is working across defence, industry, and international partners to improve the training experience and results for its personnel, which includes recruiting more instructors and actively managing timeframes for training.

The official claimed that the RAF has enough airmen to meet its operational obligations.

He was backed by a serving RAF officer who defended the situation and categorically denied that there was a problem. He predicted that this year would be a “challenge” as the air force prepares to retire several aircraft and introduce new platforms as part of its modernization plans.

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