LONDON — The quality of aircrew training among NATO’s European members is holding up despite the strains on defense budgets from the continent’s ongoing financial crisis, a senior British analyst said.
The most recent theater to expose the levels of competence of NATO’s European members was the 2011 Arab Spring revolt in Libya, as the West backed anti-Gadaffi rebels in their campaign against the Libyan leader’s armed forces.
There were some problems, notably the rapid diminution of precision guided weapon stocks in what was a relatively limited campaign. However, countries were “able to turn up and slot into a very ad hoc coalition,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies. “Once they sorted out the politics and command structure, the actual operations went reasonably well. They did more than muddle through.”
The average annual training figure for NATO air arms is 170 hours. Some, notably the U.S., comfortably exceed this, meaning other nations come in below the average figure.
“Some countries are closer than others in hitting the NATO target,” Barrie said. “Standards do vary. But generally in NATO countries people make real efforts to keep up their standards as much as they can.”
Actual operations can replace training sorties “up to a point,” Barrie said, but the risk is that campaigns such as Afghanistan and Libya can skew pilots’ capabilities towards a relatively narrow spread of skills.
This can be a risk for air forces that want the ability to move from COIN to full-blown, high-intensity conflicts. The tendency to focus on one particular area of operations in a crisis is a particular problem for medium-sized air arms that do not have the resources available to train for other roles while engaged on actual operations.
Although defense budgets have shrunk, so have the inventories of aircraft and pilots. This means that the smaller amount of money available is generally still able to cover training for admittedly smaller numbers of pilots.
The increasing sophistication of simulators means that a greater proportion of training syllabi can be carried out in them, with the attendant substantial savings in costs.
“The interesting question is how far you can go with synthetic training,” Barrie said.
For example, the U.K. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy plan to conduct 50 percent of their training on Lockheed Martin’s forthcoming F-35 on simulators.
“If you hit a problem in a simulator you can wipe your brow and walk away. But in a fast jet blasting down a Welsh valley at 200 feet, you can get yourself into a real mess,” Barrie said.
“As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. They may find they can do even more — or they may find you actually need to put the men or women in the cockpit, otherwise the veracity just isn’t there.”