Flying Desks, Not Planes: The Backlog in British Fast Jet Pilot Training
It may not have been the spiciest of leaks — and no Discord servers or Russian disinformation were involved. But a leak of internal Royal Air Force documents to Sky News last year shed light on an ongoing and critical problem: British pilot recruits are not being trained quickly enough. A program that should take two or three years is now taking up to eight. Official sources maintain that this is an expected challenge given the current operational context. Others call it “the biggest [screw] up in the RAF.” Either way, the outcome remains the same — the British military needs more fast jet pilots but faces significant delays in getting them through the training pipeline.
How did the backlog become so bad? There appears to be a confluence of several factors affecting the training pipeline, both short-term problems (availability of training jets and capacity issues) and longer-term issues stemming from a lack of resilience built into the Military Flying Training System from its conception. Operational demands on the Royal Air Force, particularly with overt Russian aggression in Europe, have also meant that the fast jets themselves are less available for advanced training. While a small air force is expected to have to juggle competing demands in a challenging environment, these problems have woven together into a serious mess for British military aviation.
Despite Secretary of State Ben Wallace’s exhortation to Royal Air Force head Air Vice Marshal Sir Mike Wigston that fixing training problems was his “only priority” back in late 2019, the issues with the pipeline will take years to resolve. Until then, while the Royal Air Force maintains that it can meet all its operational commitments, there remains significant unease within the military aviation community. Given the tendency of governments of all parties since the end of the Cold War to expect the British armed forces to do more with less, the pilot training program offers a cautionary tale for future planning in a more uncertain context, including the forthcoming refresh of the Defence Command Paper — building in resilience from the start may cost a bit more but is worth it in the long run.
Challenges in Pilot Training
The Royal Air Force, Army Air Corps, and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm currently train their pilots under the Military Flying Training System within three streams: fast jet, multi-engine (covering both transport and surveillance aircraft), and rotary wing. Each recruit completes initial officer training and elementary flying training, and then fast jet recruits “get their wings” through basic training on the Beechcraft Texan T1 at RAF Valley. They then complete advanced training on a Hawk T2, also at RAF Valley, while receiving education in tactics and air warfare. Once they have passed this stage successfully, they are streamed into an Operational Conversion Unit depending on which jet they will be flying — No. 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby for the Typhoon, or No. 207 Squadron at RAF Marham for the F-35B Lightning II — where they learn the operational and tactical specifics of their aircraft.
The leaked documents obtained by Sky News showed that over half of those moving through the flying training pipeline in mid-2022 — 347 out of 596 personnel, from all three services — were either waiting for an available slot on a training course or were on a “refresher” course. Such courses are taken when delays in advancement to the next phase of training are so long that their extant skills are no longer considered to be current. Only 11 fast jet recruits had made it through to operational conversion for either Typhoons or F-35Bs that year, despite 43 slots being available for this final stage.
Information released by the Ministry of Defence under a Freedom of Information Act request around the same time reflected these delays, estimating a training time between initial training and operational conversion for fast jet pilot recruits at 77 months when it should take around 31 months, with similar delays for the multi-engine and rotary wing streams. A written answer from the responsible minister shortly afterward gave figures for the number of personnel on hold at various stages of training, with a total of over 300 waiting in the various streams.
The pilots on hold waiting for a course are being made use of in various roles at military bases around the country, but the fact remains that they should be learning to fly their aircraft instead. Finding and fixing the problems that are causing and exacerbating training delays will be vital if the British armed forces are to get the pilots they need.
Hawk Engine Problems
Fast jet pilot recruits use the Hawk T2 training jet, a significantly updated version of the Hawk T1s now used most famously by the Red Arrows aerobatics display team. The leaked documents from 2022 highlighted an “emerging” problem with the engines on the Hawk T2s, which was estimated to likely impact training capacity for the following three years, increasing holding times for fast jet recruits. This was rather abruptly proved to be the case at the start of 2023, when the engine problems meant that the Royal Air Force grounded the entire T2 fleet as a “precaution,” although flying resumed shortly afterward.
During an evidence session in front of the Commons Defence Select Committee in May, Vice Adm. Richard Thompson, director general air at Defence Equipment and Support, confirmed that the current availability problem with the Hawk T2 “is purely down to the engine.” He explained that the operational life of two of its engine components (the compressor and the turbine) had had to be downgraded due to “design and manufacturing issues” and that working with the manufacturers on a plan to rectify this would mean that the program would be “back to where we need to be at the beginning of 2025.”
Back in October 2022, the minister of state confirmed in the Commons that the Ministry of Defence was considering working around delays by sending some fast jet pilot recruits to allies and partners for training, including to the NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program in the United States. During the May 2023 committee evidence session, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton stated that the Hawk availability problems had meant that around 27 fast jet recruits were planned to train abroad before returning to the United Kingdom to their operational conversion units. He expressed his hope that the Hawk program would recover quickly and not require so many to go overseas but added that “we are not going to reduce that number so that we hedge against further problems with the Hawk engine.”
As part of a deal with Qatar over the sale of Typhoons, the United Kingdom agreed to train 32 Qatari pilots on the jets via a joint Qatari-British training squadron. A defense source quoted in the Sky News reporting on the leaked documents expressed concern that this was absorbing limited training space, contributing to British pilots being delayed in joining their operational conversion unit for the Typhoon at RAF Coningsby. There may also be a similar impact from the United Kingdom’s recent commitment to provide fast jet training for Ukrainian pilots, although any such impact will be unclear until the details of the training are fully worked through.
The impact of Russian aggression in Ukraine has also been felt more widely. The need for British pilots to participate in operations and in exercises with allies and partners is only increasing in the current context of heightened tensions in Europe, which places more pressure on training. More fast jets patrolling the skies means fewer aircraft available for training, both to bring new pilots on stream and to keep current pilots fresh in their skills. For example, Sky News reported that training courses for operational conversion on the Typhoon at RAF Coningsby had been impacted by instructors there needing to take time out to scramble those aircraft as part of the quick reaction alert process. Instructor availability has also been flagged as an issue. The leaked documents included an internal briefing slide that raised concerns about qualified pilots leaving the Royal Air Force for better jobs elsewhere rather than staying on in instructor roles. According to the documents, “The draw is so great from such a small pool we are approaching a critical mass point.” The Royal Air Force has denied that this is a serious issue, with “no mass exodus,” and it is difficult to judge whether this is indeed something that is severely impacting training.
The Hawk engine problems and potential capacity issues are both reasonably short-term factors and can be fixed with a bit of determination and some good planning. The larger context around flying training, however, may prove to be rather more difficult to rectify.
In common with many Western nations, the United Kingdom took the opportunity of the “peace dividend” after the fall of the Soviet Union to scale back its armed forces and spend less on defense. The Royal Air Force’s frontline squadrons were shrunk, and plans were afoot to privatize flying training under the Military Flying Training System. The initial 2008 contract was won by Ascent, a joint venture between Babcock and Lockheed Martin, giving it 25 years of training a set number of pilot recruits in the three streams of fast jet, multi-engine, and rotary wing. The size of this “set number” was the sticking point for the Ministry of Defence — how many pilots did the Royal Air Force and the other services need?
Given that various defense reviews kept adjusting force levels in a context of cutting spending, particularly in 2010, the armed forces found it difficult to agree on how much training capacity they required. Two camps coalesced — one side appreciated the pressure to reduce spending, therefore recommending training capacity for only the minimum number of pilots operationally required, while the other side argued that extra places should be factored in to provide surge capacity if needed and to give some resilience to the whole process. The former camp won out, but at what cost? As a senior source bluntly said to Sky News, “The system has been pared back to only work if everything turns out perfectly.”
Knighton raised a related issue as part of his recent evidence to the Defence Select Committee. The size of the Military Flying Training System was agreed on around 2012 via the process above, but the 2015 defense review heralded a time of significant change within the Royal Air Force — starting then, every aircraft (except the Hawk) was replaced, with increasing numbers of Typhoon squadrons and the forthcoming arrival of the F-35B. Knighton noted that by 2019, when all of these new aircraft were coming into service, there was a bulge in pilot recruits needing training — the same bulge that is still moving through the system. While Knighton appears confident that the system will be able to absorb this eventually and return to where it should be, it is clearly the result of prior reluctance to include surge capacity within the system.
Fixing the Problem
While the Royal Air Force is meeting its operational commitments, and there is no suggestion that it will fail to do so in the future, the backlog in pilot training cannot be avoided. An internal review commissioned by the secretary of state in 2022 following the leaks, while unavailable to the public, has hopefully identified ways in which the system can be improved. The forthcoming refresh of the Defence Command Paper, in accompaniment to the Integrated Review Refresh, will be closely scrutinized by the military aviation community for solutions. And the Defence Select Committee’s ongoing inquiry into aviation procurement includes military flying training — their suggestions to solve the problems should be taken seriously by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Air Force when the inquiry report is published.
Ultimately, the problem with fast jet training is one that we see reflected all too often in militaries throughout the world — the contest between investing in resilience or paring things back to the bare minimum. The lesson we should learn from the Royal Air Force’s military flying training program is one that military planners in many nations could stand to take heed of — a little resilience goes a long way.
Emma Salisbury is a Ph.D. candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London, and an associate fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. Her research focuses on defense research and development and the military-industrial complex. She is also a senior staffer at the U.K. Parliament. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @salisbot.