MFT is regarded as one of the premier events of its kind. MS&T’s Europe Editor Dim Jones reports that it lived up to expectations.

The 10th annual IPQC Military Flight Training Conference took place in London between 24th and 26th March, and consisted of a Focus Day followed by two main conference days. The first impression was of the size of the event; while most other London training-related conferences have struggled to maintain numbers of late, and also to attract overseas delegates, MFT has grown from last year’s 200 or so attendees to 250 this year. It was also evident from the size of the uniformed contingent from North America that either the travel purse-strings have been loosened slightly, or that this is the conference-of-choice in this field – or a combination of the two. Representatives of 30 nations and 8 London Embassies attended, and many gave presentations. There were also 50 industry partners, and a sizeable exhibition to divert the attention during the networking breaks.

A full and interesting agenda included keynote addresses from the commanders of the USAF’s 19th Air Force and the RAF’s No 22 Group, and the Chief of Staff of the Spanish Air Force. These and other presentations gave interesting résumés of the states of play in, challenges facing, and visions for the future of, various air forces; however, it is important to place them in context. For instance, 19th Air Force owns 1400 aircraft (comfortably more than the entire fleets of the RAF plus either Canada or Spain), runs 16 Wings employing 32000 personnel (only 3000 short of the RAF’s total) and flies almost half a million hours per year. These figures put into perspective recent statements by UK politicians – while addressing criticism of their projected failure to maintain the level of defence spending above the NATO-agreed target of 2% of GDP - about the UK’s defence budget being the fourth largest in the world (yes, but less than 10% of the US’s in total, and less than half by % of GDP) and the second largest in NATO (which says little for the rest of NATO). It also goes some way to explaining why, during the ongoing general election campaign, the main parties seem so keen to avoid defence as an electoral issue, despite evidence that “air power is now the foreign policy ‘tool of choice’ for global leaders”.

Size of air force does not necessarily determine the challenges to be faced; for instance, both the US and Swedish Air Forces are wrestling with the training gaps which have developed between venerable legacy trainers (T-38 and SK-60, both of which are approaching their diamond jubilees) and current front-line aircraft. Cost is always an issue, and it was noted that, at a time when inflation in the UK is at 0%, inflation in defence equipment and infrastructure is at 12%. For the smaller air forces, bilateral or multinational flying training might seem the obvious way to go, but often national imperatives – such as the embedding of flying training within an academy syllabus, and perceived loss of control – render this unworkable. The ‘live/synthetic balance’ remains a topic of debate, brought into focus by the fact that, in the past decade, the cost of operating front-line aircraft has risen by 75%, and that of operating training aircraft by 35%, whereas the cost of operating a simulator has decreased by 75%. The biggest cash payoffs result from downloading training from front-line aircraft to trainers, but some delegates, including the US Navy, provided empirical evidence that downloading and offloading, while laudable objectives and feasible on paper, do not always work perfectly in practice. The ability of simulators to replicate physiological and mental stress and ‘jeopardy’ remains a key issue - although this is not a nettle which many seem disposed to grasp - and there is little doubt that, for environmental, airspace and security reasons, we ‘can no longer allow aircrew to train as they fight’.

Regrettably for the proponents of off-loading, the common architecture vital to effective distributed training still remains an aspiration rather than reality, and systems are still being brought into service which cannot ‘talk’ to other systems within the same defence force, let alone internationally; the representatives of industry were challenged to help fix this. The efficacy of Public/Private Partnerships (PPP) and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) in defence were a recurring theme, and a presentation by the UK’s Defence Growth Partnership, an alliance of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills and the Ministry of Defence, aroused much interest, as did the recent launch of their UK Defence Solutions Centre, including a £10m ‘DGP Innovation Challenge’. Germane to the debate on partnerships with industry and the economics thereof, one presenter advised customers that they could reduce the cost of contracts significantly by accepting marginally more risk. This chimed with statements in another presentations that ‘Risk = Money’, ‘Risk should be placed with the party best able to manage it and absorb the costs’, and ‘Don’t ask someone to sign a contract you wouldn’t sign yourself’.

Once again this year, a main topic - or, more accurately, the main topic - of interest at the Military Flight Training Conference was the US T-X programme, and the conference was timely in that it followed closely on the formal announcement of the USAF requirements for the new Family of Systems. Comment on the latest developments, and their possible consequences, appears elsewhere in this issue.

In sum, by the yardsticks (we Brits haven’t entirely gone metric!) of attendance and industry sponsorship alone, this was a most successful conference. MFT appears to be regarded as the premier event of its kind worldwide; for me, in terms of content and networking opportunities, it lived up to that billing.