Ian Harding visits the Royal Air Force unit responsible for training transport aircraft crews
Training for the Royal Air Force’s Air Mobility Force has been revolutionised during the last five years with No.24 Squadron, based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, pivotal to its success. Historically, No.24 Squadron was a frontline C-130 Hercules squadron based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire before it moved to the RAF’s mobility hub in July 2011. Although it previously had a training flight attached, the squadron ceased frontline operations when it moved to Brize Norton. In 2013, it became a more structured and professional training squadron under a directive from Headquarters 2 Group to create a multiplatform operational conversion unit, culminating in it being rebranded the Air Mobility Operational Conversion Unit (AMOCU).
The AMOCU is currently responsible for C-130J Hercules and A400M Atlas flight training and all C-130J, A400M and C-17 engineering training at Brize Norton. It also provides support services to other air mobility platforms which includes the Brize Norton-based A330 Voyager tanker fleet and No.32(TR) Squadron’s BAE 146 and Agusta 109E based at RAF Northolt in west London.
No.24 Squadron currently contains four flights (A-D) reporting to Wing Commander Gareth Burdett who is responsible for the provision of training to the force. (Wg Cdr Burdett recently assumed command of 24 Squadron from Wg Cdr Darryn Rawlins who is quoted in this article.) The flights are as follows:
A Flight: C-130J Operational Conversion Flight;
B Flight: C-130J Tactical and Special Forces component Flight;
C Flight: A400M Operational Conversion Flight;
D Flight: Responsible for C-130J, A400M and C-17 engineering training plus the AMOCU’s training management, governance and assurance. This includes all squadrons and platforms.
No.24 Squadron’s complement of approximately 200 personnel includes aircrew, engineers, flight and ground instructors, squadron and training management plus commercial contractors supporting the training infrastructure. Training facilities for both the C-130J and A400M are located within individual buildings which also house their synthetic air and ground simulators. Co-located commercial partners working alongside them include CAE, Airbus and Thales, who provide equipment such as flight simulators, rear crew trainers and other computer-based trainers plus other infrastructure to support No.24 Squadron.
The C-130J simulators were transferred from Lyneham while the A400M front and rear Cargo Hold Training simulators are purpose-built.
No.99 Squadron will continue to deliver its own flight training for the C-17 for the foreseeable future, but the aspiration is the AMOCU will provide this once the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) finalises a new through-life solution package for the C-17. The long-term aim is the AMOCU will become a professional training hub providing training expertise for aircrew and engineers across the entire force.
Wg Cdr Darryn Rawlins said: “The concept is simple and it makes sense going forward for the Air Mobility Force to have one training centre [AMOCU] focused on training personnel for our frontline squadrons: 30, 47, 70, 99. They’ll focus on exercising, building operational experience and training for warfare. The OCU will train and develop new skills.”
During years of campaigning, military officials generally knew who their main opponents were, understood the broad profile of their missions and could plan logistics and training requirements with some certainty. The global climate militaries will operate in for the foreseeable future requires a different approach and mindset as they face up to a different types of threat.
Coupled with this, resources and funding are also finite. The UK MoD, like other global militaries, must prepare for future operations in a broader range of environments working alongside its allies. A more radical approach will be required to be operationally effective and achieve objectives safely and on time.
The UK Government has the responsibility to set defence policy based on their view of the global environment. The MoD sets strategic defence policy for the armed forces (which includes setting operational objectives) and to ensure that, within budget, they have the training, equipment and support necessary for their work.
From a training perspective, it is the responsibility of HQ 2 Group based at RAF High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire (known as the Training Requirements Authority) to ensure training meets the defence requirement. Traditionally, these requirements are issued annually to the Station Commanders (known as the Training Delivery Authority) and in turn the frontline squadron commanders who report to them. The squadrons will then deliver training to meet this requirement.
In practice this is a complex set of orders, directives and forums with multiple stakeholders involved from across the MoD. However, this process ensures the frontline is always prepared to meet the defence requirement through properly resourced and assured training.
Under this training regime, resources for the C-130J and A400M have been wholly consolidated, and the C-17 partially, to ensure they are properly resourced. Pivotal to that is ensuring the AMOCU is staffed appropriately and, importantly, has the best equipment and platforms to meet MoD requirements. Governance of training plays a key role here as it sets the process of planning, budgeting and managing the ongoing priorities of the_AMOCU against the needs of the Training Requirements Authority. If they do not have the right resources, it is their responsibility to draw attention to it.
D Flight provides training management, governance and assurance for much of the Air Mobility Force in addition to providing evaluation and assurance on the quality of the training. It liaises directly with HQ 2 Group to ensure training delivery meets the appropriate standards and the operational requirements for the Air Mobility Force.
Squadron Leader Mark Radbourne, Officer Commanding D Flight, explained: “The aim of this new approach is to free up resources on the frontline, allowing them to focus on their operational tasking. The frontline squadrons now have the opportunity to hold the AMOCU to account if standards are not met, just as AMOCU can hold 2 Group to account if resources are insufficient to meet the requirements that have been set. This new system is not only more manageable but it also promotes greater transparency and open discussion in pursuit of optimal training delivery.”
As well as consolidating training for the Air Mobility Force, the AMOCU is paving the way for a radically upgraded training approach across the Royal Air Force which aims to ensure training is fit for purpose, properly resourced and governed correctly to meet operational requirements. The aim of quality assurance in this sense is to prevent mistakes occurring and to avoid problems in delivering solutions as far as is possible.
Sqn Ldr Radbourne said: “Risk is always a huge consideration and the structure we have in place helps identify training gaps and therefore minimise risk. The AMOCU is borne out of a commitment to manage its training properly which is underpinned by a proper training management and governance system which meets defence policy. Our aim is to ensure that every individual involved from policy-making to delivery knows exactly what the objectives are. This structure ensures those on the frontline are properly trained and can complete the task defence has set them as effectively and as safely as possible.”
It is imperative the AMOCU maintains a constant dialogue with frontline squadrons to resolve issues and highlight risks that are attributable to training. In addition, operational capabilities are always evolving and the AMOCU must respond quickly.
“Capabilities evolve to meet changing defence requirements and we have to be alive to this at all times, working closely with the procurement lines, trials and evaluation, and the frontline squadrons,” Sqn Ldr Radbourne added. “New equipment, aircraft upgrades and systems developments all have an impact on training; the AMOCU has to be at the centre of things.”
There are many benefits from the consolidated AMOCU structure, Wg Cdr Rawlins confirmed: “We know what defence requirements are and we can ensure the AMOCU is resourced accordingly. There is a robust system in place to ensure appropriate training has taken place to meet specific defence requirements which also keeps our frontline people current. Our requirements are reviewed regularly and if we have a change, we have a robust structure in place to respond.”
The AMOCU assigns a specialist training manager to each aircraft type and its associated training system; these training managers are all commissioned officers from the Royal Air Force Training Branch and report directly to Officer Commanding D Flight, who is responsible for determining how training is managed and delivered. These training managers are the interface between the delivery level and requirements level.
Sqn Ldr Radbourne said: “Our QFIs [Qualified Flight Instructors] who deliver the training on A, B and C Flights work hand-in-hand with a training manager who provides training governance and quality management associated with their task. The partnership is very tight; creating a professional and forward-thinking method to manage and deliver training.”
Wg Cdr Rawlins confirmed the OCU has matured greatly during the past year with several notable successes. Perhaps most important is HQ 2 Group’s commitment to support the development of its pioneering approach. Wg Cdr Rawlins said: “This OCU is certainly a first for the Royal Air Force and there is nothing like 24 Squadron anywhere in the Royal Air Force presently that delivers and manages training for multiple aircraft types, their aircrew and maintainers.”
One of the key strengths of No.24 Squadron is that its personnel understand frontline operations with many serving there. “I believe this to be absolutely imperative. I view 24 Squadron as an enabling function to deliver safe and efficient training output to the frontline and as long as we remind ourselves that is our primary goal, I believe we can develop our ideas within those boundaries,” Wg Cdr Rawlins added.
Hercules and A400M
The C-130J is tried and tested in terms of aircrew and engineering training but the MoD now requires the platform to perform more tactical work (for example air-drop, paratrooping and support to Special Forces) and less strategic airlift.
No.24 Squadron personnel confirmed to AIR International several modifications have recently been made to the training system to enable this specific tasking. In a similar vein, the MoD is also tasking the A400M and C-17 in wider roles creating a significant need for training analysis, design and delivery from the AMOCU.
Wg Cdr Rawlins explained: “C-130J has been positive for the AMOCU. Very soon 47 Squadron will be our only frontline C-130J customer as 30 Squadron migrates to A400M. No.47 Squadron demands a higher output standard from the AMOCU so we have therefore developed training to focus on their tactical needs. To take a student from phase two [basic] flying training with 120 hours of flight experience to a tactical operator capable and ready to fight on the frontline is a challenge. We’ve made our training more efficient and more focused to achieve this.”
Progress on the A400M had been slower than anticipated due to technical issues with the platform. As these have been resolved and more aircraft are received and delivered into the programme, No.24 Squadron’s training involvement has increased significantly. Sqn Ldr Radbourne said: “The A400M engineering school is established and C Flight is working very closely with our trials unit and Airbus personnel to deliver training as its capabilities expand. The AMOCU is presently providing 70 Squadron with aircrew and engineers trained to operate in the strategic airlift role. As the platform’s tactical capabilities expand, 24 Squadron will continue to design training to meet the need. This will be an evolutionary process.”
Other AMOCU successes include working with international partners and other air forces. For example the AMOCU was directed by HQ 2 Group to support the Royal Air Force of Oman in tactical C-130J training in 2016. The AMOCU quickly deployed a short-term training team to Oman. This included a training officer from D Flight and four QFIs to analyse, design and deliver bespoke training to pilots and crewmen in tactical disciplines.
The scale and range of synthetic training will certainly expand in the future. As well as offering huge cost savings, the benefits of collective training and mission rehearsal on this scale to the frontline are huge. For this to happen, it is imperative synthetics have greater connectivity within and across air bases and international borders.
One of No.24 Squadron’s aims is to have all its aircrew simulators connected to complete collective training. The future training scenario envisaged could involve a collective formation of air mobility assets working alongside the Royal Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance force, a synthetic air drop, air-to-air refuelling with Voyager or connectivity with the F-35B Lightning II or Typhoon – all from the ground at Brize Norton.
The frontline arena is constantly changing and the training arena must adapt and change accordingly, as Wg Cdr Rawlins concluded: “There is general acceptance that to make the AMOCU work and be as efficient as possible it needs to be resourced and fed with the right calibre of people. Our core business is to enable frontline operations and we must deliver.
“Over time I would prefer us to be known as an operational conversion unit delivering world-class training. We are also creating a benchmark for other elements of the Royal Air Force to follow because the AMOCU is unique. The UK Military Flying Training System [UKMFTS] provides a similar example elsewhere but this is distinct. When we consider different phases of training with UKMFTS currently sitting within phases one and two, what you have here is a professional phase three training school.
“In considering our success, credit must be given to 45(R) Squadron [at RAF Cranwell] in terms of the quality of students we receive. However, phase three training relies a lot more on the student to think like a warfighter and develop those skills themselves. The tactical side is so important now with clear areas of specialisation. Our students must be tactically more aware as a result which is both exciting and challenging. We must all be very adept to change to meet future needs.”