ASDOT another casualty of MFTS?

AIR International considers the UK Ministry of Defence’s re-think on the proposed Air Support to Defence Operational Training programme

COUNTRIES AROUND the world use private companies to provide training for their military. A number of entrepreneurs have made successful businesses out of buying up recently retired fast jets and operating them for the benefit of their own navies, armies and air forces in various training scenarios. The practice relieves the government of the responsibility of owning and maintaining expensive equipment and other infrastructure and paying for the training and career paths of those involved in the system’s operation. It is also a way to retain the expensive skills of fast jet pilots in the defence sector rather than losing them to airlines. The idea being they would rather fly Red Air, or adversary tactics, than Airbuses to Alicante. Such schemes are supposed to, and generally do, save money.

To a relatively small extent the United Kingdom has also adopted the practice; HHA at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire flies former Schweizer Luftwaffe (Swiss Air Force) Hawker Hunters under contract to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Bournemouth, Dorsetbased, Cobham provides aircraft for electronic warfare training and target towing, for example.

The fiscal advantages have not been overlooked by Whitehall’s bean counters. UK aircrew training has long been contractor-led and even the vital aerial refuelling task has been made subject of a private finance initiative. Both of those ventures have been the butt of scathing criticism for costing more than forecast.

ASDOT

In June 2016 the United Kingdom MoD announced its proposed Air Support to Defence Operational Training programme (ASDOT) with the goal of it becoming operational in 2020. The stated objective was for a private contractor or consortium to supply: “Live air support to operational training, operational assurance, trials and exercising across all defence environments that cannot be met organically by the Front Line Commands”.

The MoD said the chosen provider would, in the first instance, receive around £750 million for Phase 1 of the programme. The money would buy ten years of training and support for MoD, Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm, the Army Air Corps and other units coming under Joint Forces Command. If the programme was adjudged to be a success it could be further extended for another five years at a cost of between £300 and £500 million. It was envisaged that it would replace existing training arrangements as they came to the end of their lives.

These programmes would include 736 Naval Air Squadron, based at RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall, which is planned to retire its Hawk T1 aircraft in 2020 and similarly, the Royal Air Force’s 100 Squadron, also equipped with the Hawk T1 is scheduled to say goodbye to its jets in 2027.

In June 2016 the MoD released information on what the UK Military Flight Training Systems Project Team would be seeking from the multi-phased programme: air-to air combat, air-to-surface, Joint Terminal Attack Controller/Forward Air Controller, electronic warfare, air traffic control, aerospace battle management, ground-based air defence training and even live gunnery.

When it was announced it was said that the contractor would be expected to provide between 5,000 and 6,000 hours per annum but did not specify how many hours per discipline that requirement encompassed.

Industry interests

Potential investors quickly prepared to respond to the announcement of the formal competition set to be launched in 2017.

First off the blocks to register interest was a collaboration between QinetiQ, Thales and Textron AirLand, which signed a memorandum of understanding to bid for ASDOT at Farnborough International Airshow in July 2016. Had this group won the competition it would have used the Textron AirLand Scorpion light attack aircraft as its primary aircraft.

In early December 2017, the British Babcock International Group and Israeli technology company Elbit Systems announced the formation of the BE Group to pursue the ASDOT contract. Both companies have been heavily involved in delivering the UK’s MFTS programme. The Group never announced publicly what aircraft it would use.

In June 2018, UK company Cobham Special Mission announced it had joined forces with the US Draken International to bid for ASDOT. Cobham has a history of decades of collaboration with UK defence and Draken supplies Red Air for the US Air Force and US Navy using, among other types, Aero Vodochody L-159Es, Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and Aermacchi MB339s. In July 2018, it announced that 3SDL, a specialist in close air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance experimentation and emulation for collective training within the UK MoD had joined the team.

QinetiQ joined Cobham’s team in November 2018 and SecureCloud+ was selected by Cobham as its preferred supplier to deliver secure communications to ASDOT in December 2018.

In March 2018 a fourth consortium, naming itself Red Aces, threw its hat into the ring. Canadian company Top Aces, formerly known as Discovery Air Defence Services, linked up with Italian-headquartered international conglomerate Leonardo and Lincoln, UK-based Inzpire. Inzpire has wide experience working with MoD, designing and delivering large-scale live and synthetic operational training. It works with the Royal Air Force’s Air Warfare Centre, its Typhoon Force, and Air Battlespace Training Centre at RAF Waddington. Under its submission, Inzpire would have designed the Red Air training. In October 2018 QinetiQ, originally a part of the Thales-led submission before it joined up with the Cobham team, announced its intention to acquire Inzpire. Top Aces would supply the aircraft; its present fleet comprises mostly former Luftwaffe Alpha Jets and some A-4 Skyhawks but it plans to acquire fourthgeneration supersonic fighters.

Leonardo has expertise in most areas of the defence industry. All four of the above consortia were informed in March 2018 that they had been selected by the MoD to bid, with the winner expected to be announced that September and contract award in June 2020.

Cancellation or postponement?

In March 2019, six months after the contract was scheduled to have been awarded, MoD announced it was re-thinking the programme – but did not cancel it. One can only imagine the reactions of those who had spent huge amounts of money building organisations and planning protocols to provide the very complicated requirement from MoD which, with no further explanation said: “we received a number of industry proposals in response to the ASDOT invitation to negotiation. We will now re-assess the parameters for the programme”.

There is speculation that none of the bidders believed they could provide the required product for the money on offer. The United Kingdom’s first Queen Elizabethclass aircraft carrier is scheduled to achieve initial operational capability in carrier-borne air strike operations in 2020 and make her first operational deployment in 2021. Training for the carrier group’s fifth-generation Lightning crews is essential. It seems likely that the MoD will opt for a less expensive and perforce less capable solution for only part of the specification it originally pitched to industry. It needs to do it quickly!