PARIS — France is laying the groundwork for a new trainer competition, with signs that the Pilatus PC-21 turboprop is ((PT – DELETE…has a leg up… INSERT…well regarded inside the French Air Force.
 
The new training aircraft, ((PT – DELETE…whatever design is selected…INSERT…which has attracted close interest from industry, will help prepare pilots to fly the Dassault ((DELETE…Alpha jet, which then leads to the…)) Rafale multimission fighter.
 
Gen. Denis Mercier, the outgoing chief of the French Air Force, is following the golden rule of silence as the administration prepares to launch a tender for a new intermediate training aircraft for fighter pilots, but that discretion comes amid a preference in the service for the PC-21 turboprop, one analyst said.
 
The Air Force sees the PC-21 as "the right plane as it meets the requirements," said Jean-Vincent Brisset, senior fellow at think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques. Brisset flew the Mirage IV strategic bomber and deep reconnaissance aircraft. 
 
((PT – INSERT…The PC-21’s advanced cockpit and low cost to fly and maintain are seen as positive, Brisset said. DELETE…Brisset points to the PC-21’s advanced cockpit as desirable, while also noting the low cost to fly and maintain the aircraft.)) However, a tender will attract close competition, as there are many aircraft that fit the requirements.
 
The PC-21 may be popular inside the service, but that does not mean it is guaranteed to win.
 
Alenia Aermacchi was asked for information in April about its M-345 jet trainer, and submitted its candidacy on June 1, an Italian industrial source said. A formal request for proposal is due in the autumn.
 
The potential order could be 20 to 25 aircraft, plus ground training systems and 12,000 flight hours a year, the source said.
 
Czech firm Aero Vodochody is set to compete with its New Generation L-39, an update of its L-39 trainer, and expects a competition "at the very end of the year," a company official said in Paris.
 
BAE Systems would likely pitch the Hawk jet trainer, said Steve Timms, managing director of the military aviation businesses’ defense information, training and services operation.
 
"If the RFP is released, we would definitely be interested," Timms said in a telephone interview June 17. A partnering agreement with French industry was an option, but much depended on the nature of the contract requirement, he said.
 
The Beechcraft T-6 ((PT – INSERT…Texan …)) may also enter the competition.
 
The planned trainers will carry "embedded simulation," which will play a key role in training fighter pilots at short notice for the Rafale, Mercier told Defense News TV at the Paris Airshow.
 
Mercier is due in September to take up the post of NATO Supreme Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, as Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros completes his tour and returns to France.
 
The service needs 290 fighter pilots, with each flying an annual 250 hours, of which 70 will be on a Rafale simulator. Of those pilots, 50 will fly an annual 40 hours in the Rafale and fly in the new trainer with a download of Rafale simulation in the cockpit, Mercier said.
 
That fleet of trainers aims to deliver fighter pilot training at short notice. Those pilots will not fly "first entry" missions of high intensity, but they will provide support by flying the Rafale on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, he said.
 
The high-entry training plane remains the Alpha jet, which the service hopes to upgrade. Most of the Alpha jets will be withdrawn  [WHEN?? PT – see below] but the upgraded units will continue flying from the advanced jet training school at Cazaux airbase, western France, ((PT – DELETE…unitl…INSERT… until 2028 or 2030, he said.
 
France lacks the budget to develop a new jet trainer to take over from the Alpha jet, Dassault Chairman Eric Trappier said at a press conference July 23.
 
"The advantage, which is bad news for us, is we build a solid plane which lasts a long time. The Alpha still has a long life ahead of it," he said.
 
There has been little modernization of the plane, which could be upgraded with a simulator. The Air Force will focus its fighter pilot training at Cazaux and will avoid cutting the Alpha jet fleet.
 
"So the existing number of Alpha jets will continue for some time," Trappier said.
 
Dassault has proposed improvements on maintenance and a light modernization to significantly extend the life of the twin-jet. France could buy a trainer off the shelf or change its training model, he said.
 
By 2025, the Air Force will fly an upgraded Rafale and an unmanned combat aerial vehicle in the combat cloud, Mercier said, and the service seeks to avoid spending too much on the new trainer.
 
The service had hoped to acquire the new trainer in 2016 but that has slipped to the end of 2017, a defense source said.

((PT – INSERT…The recently adopted revised multiyear defense budget includes funds for setting up in 2017 a new fighter pilot training system, supported by low cost trainer aircraft and a simulation system.

((PT – INSERT …A partial reduction of the Alpha jets does not appear in the present multiyear defense budget and the withdrawal will start around 2020, an Air Force spokesman said. The service is studying the options and hopes to decide by summer 2016.

The options include the new trainer preparing pilots before and after the Alpha jet, the spokesman said.

The budget is tight, but the Air Force will have some political credit as the service has agreed to forgo Rafales so France can offer an early delivery of the fighter jet to export clients, Brisset said.
 
The DGA declined comment.
 
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.