The annual Defence iQ Military Flight Training Conference took place at The Millenium Gloucester Hotel in London between 26th and 28th March 2024. MS&T’s Andy Fawkes and Dim Jones were in attendance.


This year’s conference returned to Central London from the location of the last couple of years, which was closer to Heathrow. The move certainly made daily access for those not actually staying at the conference venue itself very much easier – which was just as well, because a casual glance at the agenda revealed that Opening Remarks on Day 1 (following registration at 0700) were at the alarmingly early time of 0810, and close of play at 1815 – a full day indeed, to be repeated on Day 2, with an earlier finish on Day 3 – a theme to which I will return.

The organisers showed a commendable regard for the physical security of delegates by holding the event in an elegant and spacious subterranean conference room (a Gucci bunker), and also for our aerobic wellbeing by inserting a 43-step spiral staircase between conference hall and coffee. The general facilities were of a standard commensurate with a venue of this quality, although the space allocated for catering, networking and sponsors’ stands was somewhat undersized for the numbers attending, resulting in a high level of hubbub. The audiovisual support was good, including a video link from Romania, and the staff from both organiser and venue most helpful.


Defence iQ MFTC remains the premier event of its type on this side of the pond, rivalled worldwide only by its US counterpart, organised by associate company IGDA, and this was reflected in the number of delegates attending (339 registered, though by no means all in evidence at any one time) and the number of countries represented (33), albeit some of them by UK-based Embassy staff. The audience was the customary mix of military and industry with a sprinkling of academia and media. There were strong delegations from the usual players – US, Canada, Australia, France – plus good support from Italy, not unconnected, I suspect, with the sponsorship status of Leonardo.  We welcomed the company of the newest NATO members, Sweden and Finland, and the contributions at senior level from Malaysia and Brazil. At international events such as this, I take note of the support offered by the host nation; here, I was disappointed to observe that, in contrast to the many starred military delegates from other nations, the senior UK representation was at 1* level; this is a recurring theme, and reflects a curious MoD attitude to training conferences, which is certainly not reflected in ‘heavy metal’ events such as DSEI. In fairness, the RAF officer concerned does hold the somewhat pivotal appointment of Director Flying Training (DFT), gave the Keynote address, was in attendance for the whole event, and brought with him a strong supporting cast.


MFTC 2024 had strong delegations from the US, Canada, Australia, France – plus good support from Italy. The conference welcomed the company of the newest NATO members, Sweden and Finland, and the contributions at senior level from Malaysia and Brazil. The "home team's" participation included the British Army's Joint Helicopter Command update (above). Source: Dim Jones.


I return to the theme of the agenda. It is reasonable to assume that programme space is found for major industry sponsors, which needs to be counterbalanced by those from the military. Many sponsors therefore generate plentiful funds, but result in many presentations. There is a balance to be struck, and my own view is that this programme was too full. As regards content, to a veteran of many MFTCs (this was my 15th), a detailed inspection of the 2024 agenda and comparison with those of 2010 and subsequent evoked a slight sense of déjà vu; a greater cynic than myself might even have detected a scintilla of Groundhog Day. A more reassuringly familiar aspect of this year’s event was the guiding hand of the Conference Chair, Lt Gen (USAF Ret’d) Anthony J Rock, who has become something of an MFT institution and once again controlled proceedings with his customary eloquence, wit and aplomb. The programme ran on rails, and he was always ready with a pertinent question to get the Q&A sessions rolling. The agenda was a mix of formal presentations, panel discussions and ‘fireside chats’, with one ‘round-table’ session, where delegates were split into groups according to specialised areas of interest or expertise. These had neither designated leader nor topic and, while some clearly generated better discussion than others, I felt that both would have been useful, if only to get the ball rolling. 

The overarching theme of the conference was ‘Preparing the Next Generation of Aviators for the Multi-Domain Fight’ and the daily topics: ‘The Future of Military Flight Training: Emerging Technology - Methods and Approaches’; ‘Training Requirements across NATO for the Current and Future Mission Set’; and ‘Ensuring Readiness in Contested Environments through Procurement Agility, Standardisation and Enablers for Success’. The Chair, in his opening remarks, commented on the continuation of the expanded scope to include rotary-wing (RW), and Mission Support – Air Transport (AT), Air Refuelling (AR), Battle Management, ISTAR and Remotely-Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) - although it was clear that fixed-wing, and particularly fast-jet (FJ), pilot training is still the critical focus for most nations. Ukraine was again the benchmark against which current readiness, resilience and effectiveness are measured, although it was somewhat depressing to have the parallel drawn between the trench warfare of 1916 and what is going on in Eastern Ukraine today. China remains the emerging threat, the Taiwan Strait, the operational theatre yardstick for assessment of peer and near-peer readiness and resilience, and multi-domain, the buzzword of the day.       


Notwithstanding the positive approach of many presenters, it seems to me that, over the past 15 years, there has been almost no revolution and only a limited amount of evolution in military flight training. One major development is the change in the relationship between industry and government/military, viewed, certainly by the latter, 15 years ago with a degree of suspicion but by both sides now as an essential partnership for success.  Evolution, whatever the aspirations of the participants, remains hamstrung by platform limitations, acquisition processes and money. Procurement was characterised by one speaker as a potential blocker between Industry and customer, but by another (albeit in the procurement field) as an enabler. Once again, it was disappointing that there was no audible representation from either domestic acquisition or finance fields, and hence no real debate on the issue. Regarding platforms, I confidently (if misguidedly) reported in 2010 that the contract for a T-38 replacement would be let in 2014, and that T-38 would be retired in ‘around 2020’. We heard this week that T-38C would remain in service until 2035. The platform for the USAF’s ‘Reforge’ fighter lead-in programme will have to last 30 years and has not yet been identified. DFT(RAF) gave an upbeat, if oft-repeated, assessment of UKMFTS – ‘we’ve had challenges, but we’re working through them’ - but, although elements of the contract have gone well, the FJ stream continues to cause major concern, and the sunny uplands are still some distance away.  

There is some good news: France has had the initial feedback on the retirement of the AlphaJet and progress direct from PC-21 to Rafale and Mirage, and the results are good. Progress has been made by many nations on improving flying training pipelines by reducing course lengths and rationalising platforms and basing. This may smack of deckchairs and Titanic, but it remains one of the few ways of countering a perennial lack of funding. Disappointingly, some initiatives such as the USAF’s Pilot Training Next (PTN) have been parked, in that particular case due to an unsustainable instructor/student ratio; however, successful elements have been retained. Recruiting suitable candidates for training is not a problem for most nations; however, retaining them beyond the point where they have become supervisory and instructional assets on the front line and in the training system is. Regarding the live-synthetic balance, there is general agreement that, for many reasons including cost, platform life, the environment, airspace and operational security, true LVC is the way ahead, and this may be the only area of revolution. In the margins of MFTC 2023, MS&T spoke with Dan Robinson, CEO and Co-Founder of Red 6, and a follow-up interview this year will be the subject of a separate report.  


MFTC delegates learned US Air Force's T-38C will remain in service until 2035, challenging US DoD's capability to prepare fifth-generation pilots for the 2030, and beyond, air battle. Source/credit: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Natasha Stannard.


Although the general format and the various elements of this conference may have been familiar, it is always the content rather than the headline which is important, and the individual perspective which the various presenters bring to their presentations which sets the tone of the event. One recurring theme was adapting training to reflect demographic change, and the ‘generation gap’. RAF Central Flying School gave a thought-provoking talk on qualifying and quantifying the effect of changes in the social and behavioural attributes and skill sets of the various age groups, both student and instructor, and how this should affect the way we teach and learn. I was relieved to see that I qualify as a baby-boomer (but only just!), and have not been relegated to a new ‘fallen off the perch/consigned to care home’ category. Views varied as to how much of the generation gap was myth and how much fact; some opined that, when the chips were down, Gen Z would come up with the goods just as their antecedents had. I am not totally persuaded. An early speaker summarised the two principal areas of focus as ‘learners’ and ‘outcomes’; I believe that we should take care to ensure that the outcomes are what we need them to be on ‘Night 1’ of the next conflict (it used to be ‘Day 1’), and not what the characteristics of the learners would best be suited to.

In sum, MFTC 2024 was a well-run, useful and enjoyable event, made so by the interaction of the players, and the discussion of requirements, opportunities and problems, rather than by the content of the programme. I look forward to the next one (if I’m spared!) and, should Punxsutawney Phil chance to put in an appearance, so be it.        

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