MS&T Europe Editor Dim Jones’ unique insight.

Six months after it was planned for a contract award and less than a year from when the programme was to have commenced training, the UK MoD announced that it has suspended its Air Support for Defence Operational Training (ASDOT programme) without selecting a winner. The official notification stated: “We received a number of industry proposals in response to the ASDOT invitation to negotiation. We will now re-assess the parameters for the programme.”


Three of Draken’s refurbished ex-South African Air Force Atlas Cheetah-Cs in Vic formation. Image credit: Draken International.

ASDOT, which MS&T has been covering since its outset, was prompted by the imminent expiration of the contract for Electronic Warfare (EW) training, currently provided by FR Aviation, part of Cobham Aviation Services, and sought to embrace other forms of front-line support by providing live air assets for: Adversary Air in both air-to-air and air-to-surface roles; Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) training and Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)); Air Traffic Control (ATC); Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD) and Aerospace Battle Management (ABM); Live Gunnery; and EW. 

The Prior Information Notice (PIN) for this programme was issued in 2016, and the intent was that the contract should run for 15 years from 2020, with a review date in 2027 to allow for the planned retirement of the Hawk T1 (which currently provides a limited Red Air capability), and to take advantage of emergent technologies. 

Several consortia announced their intent to bid, although the composition of some of these changed during the process. They include: Cobham, partnering adversary air specialists Draken International (see MS&T 3/2018); QinetiQ with Thales and Textron AirLand; Inzpire, Leonardo and Discovery Air (the latter rebranded as Top Aces, and the whole as Red Aces); Babcock and Elbit Systems; and Saab with the Gripen Aggressor.

The reasons for this latest development are unclear; however, reading between the lines of the MoD’s statement is not too challenging, and an educated observer might suspect that cost was a primary factor. The advertised budget was £750 million for Phase 1 (2020-2035), plus a further £300-500 million for a planned Phase 2 (2027-2035). However, I understand that the MoD’s ‘benchmark budget’ was significantly lower than the Phase 1 figure for the full 15 years (£50 million a year was already considered by many as being extremely challenging, and I have heard the figure of £495 million for the whole period bandied about); any bids above this figure would attract adverse scoring in the bid assessment. I am told that at least one consortium considered that a viable solution within this reduced budget would not be commercially sustainable.

In the case of adversary air, which would be a major component of the overall cost, the price of acquiring, modifying and then running suitable aircraft rises exponentially with the sophistication of those aircraft; however, the training value to the front line depends crucially on the performance of those systems – radar, EW, supersonic capability, agility, weapons simulation, data linking, etc. – in representing a credible threat to 4th- and 5th-generation aircraft.

It is not clear whether this was a view more widely held – and communicated to MoD – or whether, in the light of continuing defence financial constraint, and in the context of the modest force expansion outline in the Security and Defence Strategic Review (SDSR) of 2015, the MoD decided that it was unable to fund the programme within the advertised budget.

Whatever the case, there is an element here of ‘kicking the can down the road’. 

EW training must continue, and I would imagine that a mechanism will be found to extend the existing Cobham contract. 100 Squadron (see MS&T 2016-2) will continue to provide a service for Army, Navy and RAF until the Hawk T1’s Out-of-Service Date (OSD), (currently 2027 for 100 Sqn and 2031 for the Red Arrows) but with an aircraft of limited capability against 4th- and 5th-Gen fighters and advanced shipborne systems. The F35 Lightning II is already in RAF and RN service, and about to start its operational Carrier Strike work-up. The two ‘additional’ squadrons of Tranche 1 Typhoon will also continue to provide a more capable adversary in the air-to-air arena, and one must assume that the running costs of these in-service assets are already part of the defence budget – although, with continuing talk of ‘black holes’, one can never be sure. 

The MoD’s intent for a coherent medium-term outsourced plan seems to be in some disarray; time will tell whether ASDOT will resurface in its former guise, with a reduced scope, or with a budget which more realistically reflects the cost of providing the services required. 

MS&T’s previous coverage of ASDOT:

Defence Contractor Draken International Offers Air Adversary Training:

What Is It Like Being Red?: