Training Plans: The French Air Force wants to replace its existing trainer aircraft with new ones that include embedded simulation, such as the Pilatus PC-21. (Pilatus Aircraft)
PARIS — Conflicted by the need to reduce training costs while retaining a cutting edge among its fast jet crews, the French Air Force is preparing to introduce a two-tier pilot readiness policy, and Chief of Staff Gen. Denis Mercier said the service will buy a new fleet of advanced trainer aircraft to make the change work.
The second-tier pilots would be used only to sustain operations after air superiority had been achieved by front-line units and only after they had received two or three months of intense training to hone their skills, Mercier said.
Under budget pressures outlined in the recent French defense white paper, the Air Force has imposed close to a 20 percent reduction in fighter pilot flight hours.
The training budget reductions were part of a package reducing Air Force capabilities in the next six-year budget period, including cuts to fast jets, tankers and possibly A400M transport numbers.
Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while he understood the need to respond to budget pressure, he questioned the impact on motivation and readiness.
“It’s rather like creating a full-time reserve. Bringing pilots up to the speed required for even sustainment-type operations is asking a lot within two or three months. You also have to query the motivation of these second-tier crews. The Air Force risks regularly losing crews to people like the airlines,” he said.
Normally, French fast jet pilots get 180 flying hours a year but budget demands are reducing that to 150 hours. Mercier said that’s not sufficient to keep Air Force crews at the top of their game.
Retaining the ability to undertake critical missions within hours, as the Air Force has done recently in Libya and Mali, is a top concern, Mercier told Defense News.
“The top-level priority is the activity of the Air Force. We have flying activities that have been reduced by roughly 20 percent and the main objective is within two or three years to restore levels for front-line units to an appropriate point,” he said.
The solution, he said, is that by the end of 2016 to create a two-tier system with a “first echelon of pilots who will be highly trained and be at a high state of readiness ... and a second level of pilots that will have less training and will be largely trained on a companion trainer.
“Previously, we have trained all of the pilots for the highest end of operations but if we do that now, because of constraints, we will have to considerably decrease the training format. We don’t want to do this so we have to find a new training concept,” Mercier said.
“It’s a question of money; we can’t keep training all of the guys at the highest level so we are being pragmatic. It’s an idea we are sharing with our allies in Europe and there is interest in the concept,” he said.
“The first cadre of pilots will receive the best training possible and for the others they will not be deployed for initial operations but will be there to sustain operations, having worked up their skills.”
Mercier said 50 senior pilots would serve as instructors in the second tier but would be ready to be retrained for front-line duties.
Former US Air Force Maj. Gen Richard Perraut, now with Burdeshaw Associates, said the US service was taking a similar route more through default than design.
“Based on sequestration and the reduced funding available, that is basically what the USAF is doing now. They’re only flying aircrews getting ready to deploy; those aircrews deployed, and very few otherwise,” Perraut said. “So, for the most part, France and the US Air Force are doing similar actions — prioritizing their available funding and ensuring a ready capability to serve their nation’s security needs.”
Mercier said a key requirement is the procurement of a new trainer, in part to allow second-tier pilots the ability to train on a cheaper aircraft than a Rafale or Mirage 2000D. The concept is for a second-tier pilot to spend 40 hours a year in the Rafale and 140 hours on a new trainer.
Mercier said he wants to start replacing many of the aging Alpha Jet trainers currently in service with a new aircraft that has embedded simulation to allow it to replicate some of the characteristics of France’s front-line fighters.
“We don’t have that capability yet. ... We need to upgrade our systems and replace the Alpha Jet. Without a new aircraft like the PC-21 and Hawk T2, which have embedded simulation, it would be difficult to train the pilots to this new concept,” he said.
The Air Force preference is for a turboprop like the PC-21 for cost reasons.
Some Alpha Jets will remain in service for basic fast-jet training duties but many of the fleet will start to be pensioned off as the new trainers are delivered.
The Direction Generale de l’Armement (DGA), the French Ministry of Defence procurement arm, is already in the early phases of launching a competition.
The DGA failed to respond to questions about the competition.
An Air Force spokesman said they were looking for an aircraft capable of undertaking basic and advanced training duties.
The requirement for a new aircraft has not yet been released but it’s no coincidence that most of the world’s major trainer platform suppliers are showcasing aircraft at the Le Bourget air show that began June 17.
BAE Systems’ Hawk T2, Beechcraft with the T-6, the Embraer Super Tucano and Pilatus with the PC-21 are among the trainers trying to catch the eye at the show ahead of a competition formally opening.
One top trainer company that won’t have its potential contender in Paris is Alenia Aermacchi with the M-346. Alenia’s aircraft are grounded pending the outcome of an investigation into a crash in April, said a company spokesman.
However, the spokesman said the Italian trainer company was “ interested in evaluating any development in French trainer requirements and we await a precise requirement before making an offer,” an Alenia Aermacchi spokesman said.
Mercier said he was more interested in the number of flying hours the aircraft could provide, not in aircraft numbers.
Mercier said solutions the Air Force was considering to provide training hours include a straight purchase of the aircraft and a private finance initiative type of arrangement.
Aaron Mehta in Washington and Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.