29 avril 2020 |
Alan Warnes looks at air forces throughout the Middle East and explains why personnel training has now become an urgent priority for many of them.
During the latter stages of the last decade, many Middle Eastern air forces bought big, with the focus on multirole fighters.
The full package saw more than 250 new combat aircraft contracted with governments in France, Italy, the UK and the US.
Bahrain (16 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70s), Egypt (36 Dassault Rafales), Kuwait (28 Eurofighter Typhoons and 28 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets), Qatar (24 Eurofighter Typhoons, 36 Dassault Rafales, 36 Boeing F-15QAs) and Saudi Arabia (48 Eurofighter Typhoons), are all aware of the increased threats from outside forces.
For Bahrain, Kuwait and, particularly, Qatar, the acquisition of these new jets is stretching the skills of their training planners. None currently have the numbers of aircrews and ground personnel to cope with such a large influx of new aircraft, with the situation exacerbated by the small populations.
The threat from Iran and its state-sponsored terrorism are the biggest security concerns in the Middle East, as the Tehran government fights a number of proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The killing of the commander of Al Quds, General Qasem Soleimani, by a US Army MQ-9B Reaper in Baghdad on January 3, and the subsequent political and military fall-out that it brought, has subsequently highlighted the size of the threat, if we ever needed it.
Tehran has, for many years now, been seeking more Iranian influence by supporting militias in the Middle East.
Major General (Ret) Khaled Al Bu Ainnan Al Mazrouel, who formerly commanded the UAE Air Force and Air Defense, told me at the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference in November: “Iran’s menace has risen in recent years and its policy now is to fight proxy wars, not with its own military, but with the likes of Hezbollah and the Houthis. Iran is transferring high-tech capabilities to these militias and training them.”
Any war with Iran would see the US working with its allies in the region. Interoperability in the Middle East has come a long way since the first Gulf War in 1991 and these new fighters and tactics will play a significant role, although right now that might be too early for most of them.
Remodelling its fighter fleets has meant a large investment into the training of personnel associated with flying these new aircraft – not just pilots and weapons system operators but ground crews too.
The air force commanders would have had to ensure they had enough resources to train the increased number of young pilots for the new fighter programmes.
The Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) commander, Major General Hamad bin Abdullah al Khalifa, acknowledged the need in November 2018, six months after a deal had been done for 16 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 70s. “The selection process is now under way; we started preparing for the arrival of the new F-16s two years ago,” he explained.
In July 2018, the Bahraini Government signed a $2.18 billion foreign military sales (FMS) deal with its US counterpart for 14 new Block 70 F-16Cs and two dual-seat F-16Ds and their support. The commander is looking forward to their arrival in 2022. “These new F-16s will add to our current capability and will be integrated with the assets of other allied air forces,” he said.
Lockheed Martin had aspirations to upgrade the RBAF’s existing 20 F-16C/Ds to a similar standard as the new Block 70s, known as the F-16V. But the RBAF baulked at the $1.1 billion price. “Our priorities lie with the 16 new Block 70s. Our current fleet has been modernised to a very high standard and [the aircraft] are extremely capable until the Block 70s arrive. What happens after that we don’t yet know,” said al Khalifa.
Not too surprisingly, there has been an increase in the number of pilots being recruited to cope with the doubling of the F-16 fleets.
Although the RBAF does operate three Slingsby T-67M Firefly basic training aircraft, they are regularly grounded, which meant a more reliable option was needed. This led to RBAF student pilots being sent to the UAE (Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Air College Flying Training School at Al Ain), or Saudi Arabia (King Faisal Air Academy at Riyadh-King Khaled Air Base) or Egypt (Air Force Academy at Bilbeis Air Base).
Students coming from Egypt fly the Grob 115s and then the Hongdu K-8 Korakoram before heading back to the RBAF’s Isa Air Base to fly the F-5s and then progress to the F-16s. However, those coming from Saudi or the UAE will only have flown turboprop PC-7s and PC-21s before heading back to Bahrain to fly the BAE Hawks and the Hawk simulator at Isa Air Base, then progressing to the F-5 and the F-16.
It’s unclear why the RBAF prefers its pilots training in Egypt to progress to the K-8s.
At least one F-16 and one F-5 pilot have been sent to the US to work with the new F-16s, which boast the new AN/APG-83 radar.
The Bahrain Ambassador to the US, Abdullah bin Rashed Al Khalifa, paid a visit to the new F-16 production line at Greenville in South Carolina on December 17, where the first F-16 Block 70 is now being built and should be delivered in 2021.
Egypt signed a €5.2 billion ($5.77bn) deal with the French Government in February 2015 for 24 Dassault Rafales (16 two-seat DMs and eight single-seat EMs), which led to Egyptian Air Force (EAF) pilots being sent to Istres Air Base, near Marseille, to be trained.
The first three dual-seat DMs were subsequently delivered in July 2015 with EAF instructor pilots on board, who are now training the new batches of pilots coming from Mirage 2000s and F-16s.
It is unclear if there any ab-initio pilots coming straight from the academy yet.
The Rafales flew their first combat mission in May 2018 and, in March 2019, Rafales from both the French Air Force and Egyptian Air Force were involved in their first joint exercise, indicating that the aircraft and their crews were now fully operational.
Another 12 Rafales were subsequently ordered in January 2019.
Egypt, which operates one of the biggest F-16 fleets, currently appears none-too-keen to acquire more US fighters because of the many conditions imposed on sales and the threat of possible sanctions.
It has, however, also acquired up to 24 Sukhoi Su-35s and 50 MiG-35s, although interoperability with the GCC countries and the US will, obviously, be a problem.
The Kuwait Air Force (KAF) has 28 Eurofighter Typhoons and 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets on order.
The €8 billion ($9 billion) deal for Typhoons was signed on April 5, 2016, for 22 single-seat and six twin-seat aircraft. An intergovernmental agreement between Kuwait and Italy’s Leonardo also includes three years of logistics and operational support, plus training of an initial eight Kuwait Air Force instructor pilots, together with ground personnel. Delivery of the first aircraft is expected in September this year.
With no training aircraft because the Shorts Tucano and BAE Hawks have been grounded for several years, despite offers by BAE Systems to get them airworthy, KAF pilots have been sent to the likes of France, Italy, Pakistan and the UK.
The Italian Air Force’s 61 Stormo (wing) at Lecce-Galatina has been training KAF student pilots in recent years on both the MB 339 (Phase II/III) and Leonardo T-346A (Phase IV), with 17 cadets flying the latter in the lead-in fighter training (LIFT) course.
With an eye on the Middle East market, which Leonardo believes has a requirement for 150-200 advanced jet trainers between 2019-2028, the Italian company has teamed up with the Italian Air Force to launch the International Flight Training School (IFTS). Set to open in 2021, IFTS will offer the new Leonardo T-345 lightweight trainer to assume the roles of the elderly MB339s at Lecce-Galatina, while the T-346s currently there will move out to Deci, Sardinia.
Currently 61 Stormo works with an impressive M345/346 integrated training system concept at Lecce, where ground-based training systems (GBTS), like the real-time monitoring system (RTMS), are linked up to a full mission simulator (FMS), flight-training device (FTD) and a mission planning/debriefing system (MPDS). The instructor operating station (IOS) is linked to them all and is able to inject different scenarios into the training flights.
What makes the whole system more valuable is the ability to connect everyone working in the GBTS with the M345 and/or M346 in the air via the live virtual constructive (LVC) and embedded tactical training system (ETTS) network.
The KAF agreed a foreign military sale (FMS) worth $1.16bn with the US Government in early 2018 for 28 Boeing F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornets to replace its F/A-18C/D Hornets.
To train pilots, Kuwait has ordered two tactical operational flight-trainers (TOFTs) – one legacy system modified for the Super Hornet and one new unit. Boeing will provide training for an initial batch of 26 pilots.
The first TOFT will be delivered to a US location to support initial aircrew training, which is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2021. The first aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2022.
Qatar has bought the biggest number of new fighters – 24 Eurofighter Typhoons from BAE Systems, 36 Dassault Rafales and 36 Boeing F-15QA – and undoubtedly faces the biggest headache over pilot training.
After signing the £5 billion deal for 24 Eurofighter Typhoons on September 17, 2017, the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) re-established No 12 Squadron on July 24, 2018 as a joint Qatar Air Force-RAF Typhoon training unit at RAF Coningsby.
RAF personnel will train Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF) aircrews and ground personnel, up to the Typhoons being delivered in 2022.
Six RAF/1 Squadron Typhoons deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in late November as part of Exercise Epic Skies III, which finished on December 19, 2019. The deployment provided personnel from 12 Squadron the chance to develop a closer working relationship, ahead of the first QEAF flight crews joining the unit early this year.
The QEAF is also set to acquire nine Hawk advanced jet trainers (AJTs), which should be delivered in 2021. It seems a low number of AJTs for a fighter fleet that will balloon from 12 jet fighters (Mirage 2000-5EDA/DDAs) to 96, and it is likely more will follow at some point. The Leonardo M346 was evaluated by the QEAF in November 2018.
An original €6.3 billion ($7.8 billion) order for 24 Rafales, including six dual-seaters was signed on May 4 2015, and included weapons and training provision. Dassault carried out the latter at Istres Air Base.
An additional 12 Rafale fighter order was signed off on March 27, 2017. The first five of the 24 Rafales were officially handed over at Dunhon Air Base on June 4, 2019.
It is unclear if the French Air Force will opt to work the same way as the RAF. Neither the French Air Force or Dassault responded to requests for more information.
Boeing announced on June 14, 2017, that the QEAF was set to purchase 36 Boeing F-15QA (Qatar advanced) Strike Eagles, a variant of the F-15E tailored to Qatari requirements. The $12 billion deal, which was updated with a $6.2 billion undefined contract, also includes US-based lead-in-fighter-training for the F-15QAs.
Boeing expects to start delivering the 36 F-15QAs in March 2021 through to early 2023, but if options for another 36 are exercised it would stretch production by a further three years to 2026.
In late August, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a $500 million contract had been awarded to begin training of QEAF pilots and maintainers on the F-15QA in St Louis, Missouri. This will continue into next year, when training will relocate to Qatar and run to August 2026.
Qatar decided to step up its pilot training with the acquisition of eight Super Mushshaks for primary flying training, which were delivered in two batches of four by the end of 2018. The Pakistan Air Force positioned technical and operational teams, including qualified flying instructors, at the Air Force Academy at Al Udeid to conduct, supervise and carry out all the functions and services required.
The 260hp Super Mushshak is already flown in the region by the Royal Saudi Air Force (20) and Royal Air Force of Oman (8) to fulfil primary training roles.
The eight QEAF Super Mushaks have taken some of the training away from the 24 Pilatus PC-21s for cost reasons, and there is speculation that there will be a follow-on order for eight more.
Meanwhile the Royal Saudi Air Force is looking at upgrading its Super Mushshaks with new Garmin glass cockpits.
The Saudis have a big enough fighter force to be able to handle the induction of another 48 Typhoons, and the training needs are being handled by BAE Systems, a major player in the desert kingdom.
A second batch of 22 Hawk Mk 165 advanced jet trainers was announced in February 2015 to augment the 22 already delivered and the 55 Pilatus PC-21s flying at the RSAF’s King Faisal Air Academy.