Flying Together: Belgian and French Alpha Jets from Cazaux training base fly over the nearby coast. (French Air Force)
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Following the breakdown of talks to set up a European jet pilot training program — which could have saved millions of euros — Europe's air forces are sticking with the NATO school in Texas, going it alone or forging bilateral deals.
“Nations want to use their own bases, their own aircraft and their own standards,” said one Italian source, who is knowledgeable of recent, aborted efforts to sign a continent-wide cooperation deal.
“Bilaterals are simple; trying to please everyone is not simple,” he added.
Last year marked the end of efforts, for now, to create the so-called Advanced European Jet Pilot Training System (AEJPT), or Eurotraining program, which had been in the works for a decade. It envisioned a handful of European bases at which pilots would come together to train on a standard fleet of trainer jets.
An obvious candidate for European defense spending rationalization as budgets sank, the program was taken on board by the EU’s European Defence Agency in 2009. In an August 2012 statement, the agency said it had “finalized its pre-contract phase as per the coverage of a MOU agreed by the contributing Member States,” with requirements based on a document signed by European chiefs of staff in 2006.
Among the nations involved were Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.
A request for information was also sent to industry, with Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi and EADS replying with a joint proposal centered on Alenia’s M-346 trainer jet.
But at that point, jet training became another victim of Europe’s inability to team in key areas
After the August 2012 trainer announcement, an EDA spokesman said last week, “The EDA is not active on jet training,” adding “the last meeting on the topic was in 2012, but no major project has kicked off so far.”
The Italian source said the deal had ground to a halt when no agreement was reached on basic principles, including basing.
Differing Italian and French philosophies of training give an idea of how hard it would be to find common ground on the aircraft front. Speaking this summer at the Paris Air Show, French Air Chief Gen. Denis Mercier said he would like to see acquisition of an advanced turboprop plane to replace the aging Alpha Jet.
A new generation turboprop such as the Pilatus PC-21 or Hawk T2 is seen as essential for delivering an affordable plane but with a high-tech cockpit that readies the pilot for flying the Rafale.
That puts France at odds with the Italian focus on the M-346 jet for advanced training, as well as the under-development Alenia Aermacchi M-345 — also a jet — for Phase II training.
And as air forces find themselves with fewer pilots to train thanks to cuts, they are looking around to bring in trainees from other nations through bilateral deals, with France and Italy possible competitors in the search for recruits.
Kuwaiti and Singaporean students are enrolled at the Italian Air Force’s Lecce training base, which next year will start testing the M-346. The base is actively seeking more air forces interested in training there.
Speaking at a Rome conference on jet training on Nov. 28 established to promote Italy’s training infrastructure, Italian Air Force chief Gen. Pasquale Preziosa described a “new paradigm” of nation-to-nation deals to train pilots that extends beyond Europe. Nor did he exclude nations brokering multination deals. “The market will guide us,” he said.
Asked about the French idea of moving straight from prop aircraft to fighters, he warned that unlike jets, props could not offer high-altitude training.
France runs the only European bilateral arrangement at its Cazaux base, which trains French and Belgian pilots and weapon systems operators at its advanced jet training school, said French Air Force Lt. Col. Jérome Armand.
This is the last training before the pilot and weapons officer take off in front-line fighter aircraft.
As of this summer, Cazaux is delivering basic and advanced training for some 30 French and 10 to 12 Belgian pilots, and a further 10 or so French weapons officers.
The base flies Alpha Jets, with light avionics in the cockpit, with a Belgian and a French-Belgian squadron. The former offers training for NATO and other European countries; the latter is available for other friendly countries such as Singapore, which sent four officers for weapon systems officer training.
The French officers go on to fly the Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighters, while the Belgians go up in the F-16.
The aircraft and national cultures may be different, but the NATO rules of engagement are the same for everyone, Armand said, who is based at the advanced training course office at Dijon air base in eastern France.
Armand admitted that getting Europeans to train together in Europe was “a real problem.”
“Each country has its own system and is looking for a new training system,” said Armand. “The European forces have looked at a common training system but it is not easy to gather everybody together,” he said.
Besides the different aircraft types, each country has its own culture and specific details, something seen right from the basic course, Armand said.
One solution could be a flexible European school with specific modular courses for each country, he said
Arguably, a joint European school already exists, albeit under NATO, not European auspices, at Sheppard Air Base in Texas.
For more than 20 years, future German fighter jet pilots have received their 55-week-long flight training at Sheppard, part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program launched in 1981, which today hosts 13 nations.
Germany, which also provides instructor pilots, has used the two-seat T-6 Texan II turboprop plane for its basic training at Sheppard since 2003. Pilots then move on to the aging T-38C Talon trainer jet for advanced training.
Back in Europe, one expert said that Germany and France have long shown the way forward for joint training, albeit in helicopters, not jets.
In 2005, the first Tiger attack helicopters, which are flown by both nations, arrived at Le Luc base in the south of France for joint pilot training.
Under the deal, basic training for French and German technical and logistical staff is carried out at the German Air Force Technical School 3 in Fassberg in northern Germany.
“Today’s multinational missions require training as early as possible with potential future partners,” said retired Gen. Klaus Olshausen, a military expert at the Berlin Institute for Strategic Policy and Safety Advisory.
“That way, the soldiers can experience, understand and learn to respect the different military cultures and strategies of each other’s nation,” he said.
“Therefore, the training program for the Tiger helicopter in Le Luc and Fassberg is certainly a role model for other possible European projects,” Olshausen said.