PARIS — Italy's efforts to expand the availability of crew training for its Predator and Reaper unmanned air vehicle fleet took a step forward Tuesday with the Air Force contracting Canadian simulator company CAE to upgrade a mission training simulator already ordered but not delivered.
The deal, for which no value has been released, is part of a push by the Italians to improve training capabilities with the creation of a center of excellence for training on unmanned systems like the Predators and Reapers it operates.
The Air Force originally signed a deal with CAE to supply a generic mission trainer in January 2014 but later upped its specification to a more high fidelity system using test data gathered from actual Predators and Reapers operated by the Air Force.
The system is due for delivery to the Amendola Air Force base in 2017 for pilot and sensor operator training.
All crew training for Predators and Reapers is undertaken by the US Air Force in the US, but the increasing use of General Atomics medium-altitude long-endurance machines is creating bottlenecks the Italians and others in Europe are looking to address
CAE is the prime contractor responsible for providing classroom, simulator and live flying instruction to US Air Force MQ-1 Predator/MQ-9 Reaper aircrews, supporting the training of more than 1,500 US pilots and sensor operators each year. It also provides training to crews from the UK, Italy and France.
An Italian air official said the unmanned system center of excellence for training would be unique in Europe and open for allies to use.
"We plan to develop the Italian Air Force center of excellence for unmanned systems, a first for training in the European region, and we will invite future users from allied nations to jointly train at our facility.
The Italian Air Force is aiming to build up a training capability at its UAV base at Amendola in southern Italy, although that does not rule out continuing to send pilots to train in the US, an Italian defense source said.
"Apart from initial training, the simulators will be needed at Amendola to maintain training levels for pilots already in service," said the source.
As it considers opening up its future UAV training capability to fellow air forces, the Italians see their nearby jet training center at Lecce as a model.
Pilots from Austria, the Netherlands, Singapore, the UAE and Kuwait have trained at Lecce, where the Air Force is basing its new M-346 advanced trainers. "What is being considered for Amendola is a similar idea," said the source.
Italy isn't alone in looking to move training from the US closer to home.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon raised the topic of sharing Reaper training duties in a recent visit to Paris for talks with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
"I specifically want to talk to Minister Le Drian today about Reaper UAV capacity," Fallon told journalists here.
"There is a bottleneck on training drone pilots and we're all short of drones. ... Maybe there is much we could do there in common, either in the training or the procurement," Fallon told reporters in Paris.
Britain has 10 Reapers in service and France has two in service and a third on order.
Both sides would like to acquire additional machines, adding further pressure to pilot training.
Tom Kington and Pierre Tran contributed to this article.