Pilots don’t just step into fighters and start flying; they need hundreds of hours of preparation before that day finally comes.
Millions of dollars will have been spent before any pilot has the skill set to fly a tactical jet that can operate at the speed of sound.
Consequently, LIFT is extremely important, and it has never been more so than now in the Middle East, with so many countries bolstering their combat capabilities against possible threats from likes of Iran or terrorist extremists.
Yemen, a country where a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is on-going, is a fine example of what needs to be avoided.
So, exactly what is happening among the various GCC countries?
Well, firstly, Bahrain has ordered 19 F-16Vs, as well as the upgrade of its 20 F-16C/Ds to the same configuration.
Kuwait has purchased 28 Eurofighter Typhoons, as well as 28 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and will also keep 12 of its original F/A-18C/D Hornets.
Qatar has ordered 36 F-15QA Strike Eagles, 36 Rafales and 24 Eurofighter Typhoons, with deliveries commencing within the next two years.
Saudi Arabia has signed a memorandum of intent with the British Government to add another 48 Eurofighter Typhoons to the 53 it already operates. It is also taking delivery of 84 brand new F-15SAs, as well as upgrading 68 F-15S to the same equivalent.
With all this activity, it is vital these countries get their training options in order before the bulk of the aircraft arrive.
None of the GCC countries, or their allies, uses a central flying training academy. Like most countries, they prefer to carry out their own schooling, even if the UAE and Saudi Arabia do train pilots from other allied forces.
The Hawk has been the principal LIFT in the region, serving the GCC for many years, with Bahrain (6), Kuwait (12), Oman (25), Saudi Arabia (72 plus 22 on order), and UAE (61) all taking deliveries of new aircraft over the past 30 years.
That number is set to increase when Qatar signs a deal for up to nine aircraft.
LIFTs are all now used in conjunction with ground-based training systems. CAE, for example, provided the simulators for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Hawks.
Some of the earlier Hawk versions have been retired. Oman, for example, has replaced some of its Mk103/103A/203s with new generation Mk166 versions.
The UAE, however, looks to have abandoned the jet as a LIFT in favour of the Pilatus PC-21. BAE sees the Hawk continuing to play a major role in the region, preparing pilots for life in the cockpit of frontline combat jets.
A BAE Systems spokesman said: “Countries who have, or are soon to refresh their frontline aircraft are the main focus of our current activities. The Hawk’s technology enables it to closely emulate all of the most popular frontline aircraft in current or future service in the region, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16, and F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet.
“We are also seeing a real desire in the region to embrace interoperability. Air forces utilising the same aircraft and similar training programmes and pipelines as each other in the Gulf will extract even more benefits from collaboration and efficiencies than they would by working alone.
“We hope air forces currently operating previous models of the Hawk would look to the new generation of the aircraft as part of the natural development of their training programmes.
“Keeping costs down is another area in which we wish to support our customers. We are also leading the way, in partnership with the UK Royal Air Force (RAF), in introducing more simulation to the fast-jet training programmes. This allows our customers to save money by conducting more training in realistic simulated environments, and less time flying in aircraft.”
The tiny state of Qatar faces the biggest challenge. The Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF) currently operates 12 Mirage 2000-5DDA/EDAs. However, they are to be replaced by a mix of 96 cutting-edge fighters spanning three different types from three different nations.
How will they cope, particularly with such a small population?
Like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qatar looks set to contract huge swathes of foreign pilots from the likes of the US Air Force, French Air Force and the RAF.
A British-Qatari cooperation package will also see Qatari pilots and ground crew being trained in the UK. It is unclear if QEAF pilots will go through the RAF training syllabus because, right now, the military flying training system (MFTS) is focused on the RAF input.
The newly built Qatar air academy, founded in 2011 and officially known as the Al Zaeem Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Attiyah Air Academy, is based at Al Udeid/Dohar Air Base. The brand new facility, built by France’s Defense Conseil International (DCI), took delivery of 24 Pilatus PC-21s and a suite of ground-based training system assets during 2014/15.
In January 2017, the academy was employing 110 staff spanning 11 different nationalities and had trained 49 student pilots, although the bulk of them were for helicopters.
The single-engine Pilatus PC-21 turboprop trainer has been extremely successful in the Middle East. As well as Qatar, the RSAF purchased 55, which were delivered between June 2014 and April 2016. These are operated by 9, 22 and 77 Squadrons at the King Faisal Air Academy.
The UAE Air Force received 25 in 2011/12, flown by 2 Squadron at Al Ain’s Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed Air College, while the Royal Jordanian Air Force took delivery of 10 in 2017 that were delivered to 10 Squadron at King Hussein Air College to replace the Casa 101s.
The PC-21, powered by the reliable 1,600shp PT-6 turboprop engine, has proved to be a highly cost-effective and efficient training solution.
With a considerably expanded design and performance envelope compared to most other turboprops, the aircraft’s speed and climb rate pushes it into a domain previously reserved for jets. A Pilatus spokesman said: “Used in conjunction with ground-based training systems, it can delay the transition to the more expensive jets, thus reducing costs and the training time.”
Having taken delivery of the PC-21, the UAE retired its Hawk Mk 61 and Mk 63/63As it had previously used for LIFT and passed 13 of them to the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) in 2015. They were only used for a year by 17 Squadron at Prince Hassan Air Base/H4 to bridge the gap caused by the unserviceability of the Casa 101s flying in the LIFT role and the introduction of the PC-21.
Qatar, however, seems intent on adding the new Hawks to its inventory to fly alongside the PC-21.
A requirement for six was announced when the Eurofighter deal was unveiled in September 2017. This was later increased to nine.
However, while the contract for Typhoons has been agreed, no Hawk deal has been signed. A spokesman at BAE Systems said: “The contract is subject to financing conditions and receipt of first payment, and discussions are on-going. We welcome the agreement between the UK and Qatari governments stating their clear intention to proceed with the purchase of Hawk aircraft. At this stage we cannot comment further on the specific requirements of the customer.”
While Saudi Arabia flies the PC-21, the Hawk there has a more certain future.
Having taken delivery of 30 Hawk Mk 65s in 1987/88 and 25 Hawk Mk 65As for LIFT and a light attack role, they are being replaced by the newer more modern Hawk Mk 165.
An initial batch of 22 Hawk advanced jet trainers were delivered between April 2015 and December 2016. These aircraft are similar to the Hawk T2s operated by the RAF for LIFT, and the PC-21s will act as a lead-in to the new Hawks.
In a second order for 22 aircraft, the major parts of the Hawks, which are manufactured at three BAE Systems sites in the UK – Brough, Samlesbury and Warton – are being built up to the ‘cigar shape’ of the front, centre and rear fuselage at Warton. Then, the wings are being airfreighted to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where they undergo final assembly and final check-out. In a bid to acquire more technical skills and change the way they do things, the Saudi Government, through Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI), is striving to bring more work to the local population.
Oman took delivery of eight Hawk advanced jet trainers in 2017 as part of its Eurofighter deal signed in 2012, which it will use for LIFT for the Typhoons and F-16s.
In Kuwait, the nine Hawk Mk 64s used for LIFT, have been grounded for many years. However, at last year’s Dubai Air Show, the Kuwait Air Force (KAF) chief, Major General Abdullah Al-Foudri, said: “We intend to get the Hawks and Tucanos flying again once funding becomes available.”
In 2013, BAE Systems submitted a proposal to get the jets back in the air by 2015. However, it never happened. The chief said: “We told BAE we need support for the Hawks. They can do the overhaul and then we will fly them for around four years until we receive a new LIFT.”
Kuwait has, in the past, also sent pilots for LIFT training to 61 Stormo at Lecce-Galatina in Italy to train on the MB 339 and, more recently, the M346.
The KAF chief confirmed that the BAE Systems Hawk T2, Leonardo M346, Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 and Hongdu L-15, had been evaluated. He was keen to look at the Aero Vodochody L-39NG, which, he said, “was a good aircraft for a reasonable price”.
The L-39 is the most successful jet trainer aircraft. Nearly 3,000 have been sold worldwide. Aero Vodochody has now launched a new generation aircraft, the L-39NG, featuring a new Williams FJ-44M powerplant and GENESYS glass cockpit.
The company’s chief business officer, Massimo Ghione, recently discussed the L-39NG and the interim L-39CW. “We are willing to work with any country that wants to operate the L-39NG, even if it is independent of our support,” he said. “In such a case we would talk about a strategic partnership, transfer of technologies and production. We could create a joint venture with a minority share and provide logistics support.
“We are transparent to our customer needs. If they want to grow the aerospace sector and have the final assembly, it is not a problem for us. The aircraft is quite simple to maintain and overhaul, so it would not be difficult for them to work on.
“It’s the capabilities of the new NG that our customers will want. This flexibility is unlikely to be matched by any other manufacturer.”
While the Pilatus PC-21 has been taking a piece of the BAE Hawk’s action in the Middle East, another new kid on the block is the Grob G120TP, powered by a 456hp Rolls-Royce M250-B17F engine.
Weighing only 96kg, it has an impressive power-to-weight ratio. But, as Grob president and chief sales officer, Karl Suernrohr, explained, it isn’t just that which has attracted 16 customers to date. “It works with a computerised training system,” he pointed out.
Suernrohr added: “Grob developed a cost-effective high-performance training platform with a high g-load, a powerful engine and a digital cockpit that you won’t find in any other class of turboprop trainer.
“You can now start flying an aircraft that is very powerful and so easy to handle that you can basically combine basic and advanced training in one platform, unlike previous generations where you would use three different aircraft for these roles.”
He was ready to sell 16 G120TPs to Qatar in a deal he had been working on for many years. However, possibly for political reasons, the government there opted for eight Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Super Mushshaks.
The G120TPs instead found their way to Jordan and now serve with 4 Squadron at King Hussein Air College alongside the PC-21s.
The real quandary facing most of these air forces is the manpower.
You have to look no further than Bahrain to see the situation when a new jet is ordered. It currently has 19 F-16s, but manpower levels are thought to be quite low, so not all of them are flying.
However, with the order of the 19 upgraded F-16Vs and subsequent delivery, it seems likely the F-5s will be retired, allowing their pilots to convert to the ‘new’ F-16s.
It is believed that each F-16 in Bahrain requires 3.5 pilots per cockpit because the jet can easily perform five combat sorties per day. It will mean the Bahrain Air Force’s six Hawk Mk 209s are likely to be working overtime, unless some of the work can be outsourced. Similar scenarios will be acted out right across the region as more new fighters are delivered and the war effort in Yemen is making the situation even worse.
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