Saudi catches the UK train

Saudi Arabia and the UK have reached agreement on a new $3 billion programme to provide the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) with cutting-edge officer and aircrew training. Jon Lake looks at the details.


Announcing the deal, the British Government warmly welcomed the Saudi decision to confirm UK support for its officer and aircrew training requirements which, it said, highlighted Saudi confidence in the UK’s “ability to continue to meet Saudi Arabia’s legitimate defence requirements”.

The new programme is intended to introduce an advanced aircrew training capability that will raise the standard of graduating students in terms of both capability and readiness, and is particularly intended to support the introduction and operation of the RSAF’s growing fleet of fourth generation Typhoon fighter aircraft.

Under the terms, the RSAF will receive 22 BAE Systems Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT), broadly similar to the RAF’s Hawk Mk 128 or the Indian Hawk Mk 132 (previously known as the Mk 115Y).

Saudi Arabia will also take delivery of 55 Pilatus PC-21 advanced turboprop trainers and 25 as yet unspecified primary training aircraft, as well as initial spares support. The contract will also cover the provision of a variety of advanced aircrew training devices, and upgraded training facilities.

The overall value of the deal has been estimated at US $3 billion, with the Hawks accounting for perhaps $800 million.

The Royal Saudi Air Force currently operates about 40 Hawk 65/65A aircraft of the 50 ordered in 1985 and 1994 under the Al Yamamah programme (30 Mk 65s and 20 Mk 65As). These aircraft are operated by No.s 21, 37, 79 and 88 Squadrons of the RSAF’s 7 Wing at King Faisal Air Base, Tabuk. No.88 Squadron operates as the RSAF’s Saudi Hawks demonstration team.

It has been said that the Hawk AJTs (no ‘mark number’ is yet known for the new Saudi Hawks) will replace the RSAF’s current fleet of ‘Heritage Hawk’ Mk 65/65As, representing a welcome expression of confidence in the new generation Hawk’s capability, viability and relevance from a long-standing and experienced operator of the original variant.

Apart from the fact that the new Saudi Hawks will be based on the latest generation Hawk AJT which was, in turn, derived from the Mk 120 LIFT (lead-in fighter trainer) supplied to South Africa and the Mk 127 LIF (lead-in fighter) used by the Royal Australian Air Force), little is known about the exact standard of the Saudi aircraft. It is not known, for example, whether the RSAF will opt to retain a live weapons training capability, or whether it will follow the RAF’s example with its Hawk T.Mk 2s and opt for an ‘all synthetic’ weapons training model.

Like the other next generation Hawks (120, 127, 128 and 132) the Saudi Hawk AJTs will have only 10% commonality with the first generation legacy Hawk aircraft, and will feature a new wing, a new forward and centre fuselage, as well as a new fin and tailplane. The aircraft will enjoy a four-times longer fatigue life than first generation Hawks.

This is a particularly interesting question, as the Hawk will represent a smaller proportion of the overall basic/advanced training fleet than it does at present, which may indicate that more of the present Hawk training syllabus will be ‘down-loaded’ to the new PC-21s, leaving the Hawk to concentrate on the more advanced aspects of the ‘advanced’ training syllabus, including tactical and weapons training.

Selection of the PC-21 represents much more than a direct replacement of the PC-9, since the new aircraft enjoys improved performance, as well as more ‘jet-like’ handling, and has a glass cockpit that is more representative of new-generation frontline types. With its sloping nose, short wings, single power lever and glass cockpit, the PC-21 offers a remarkably realistic simulation of a fast jet, and this could allow the PC-21 to be used for some parts of the training syllabus that are now taught on the legacy Hawk.

The RSAF currently operates about 47 Pilatus PC-9s, of 50 aircraft that were originally acquired (via BAE Systems) as part of the Al Yamamah arms deal with the UK. These equip No.s 9 and 22 Squadrons that form part of the King Faisal Air Academy, which is based at Riyadh King Khaled Air Base, the home of the RSAF’s 4 Wing.

Deliveries of the Pilatus PC-21s will begin in 2014. The Hawks will be delivered from 2016. BAE Systems is understood to be helping the RSAF to identify a candidate aircraft to meet its requirement for a primary training aircraft, which would be used for screening and for elementary flying training.

The traditional RSAF preference for following RAF practice may prove impossible, as the fibreglass Grob Tutor may not be entirely suitable for Saudi operating conditions.

There has been speculation that pending the delivery of its own Hawk AJTs, the RSAF might borrow some RAF Hawk T.Mk 2s, or that it could send some pilots through the RAF training machine.

Plans to disband the Hawk T.Mk 1-equipped No.208 Squadron are understood to have been cancelled, so that RAF pilots will continue to receive advanced flying training on the Hawk T.Mk 1 with 208, before progressing to No.IV (Reserve) Squadron and the Hawk T.Mk 2, instead of going ‘straight through’ on the Hawk T.Mk 2. This will create extra T.Mk 2 availability, which could be exploited by the RSAF.

BAE Systems said the new trainer deal was aimed at “meeting the growing demands of a world-class air force”, thereby neatly highlighting one of the questions raised by this news.

Though the RSAF is acknowledged to be ‘growing’ (and many respected analysts and observers, led by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, have predicted that the RSAF will double in size), the new training fleet is actually significantly smaller than the one it is intended to replace.

Even assuming an increased reliance on ‘synthetics’, and assuming a more efficient utilisation of training aircraft, the new fleet of 55 PC-21s, 22 Hawks, and 25 (unspecified) primary training aircraft does not seem sufficient to service the RSAF’s existing training needs – which stretch the existing fleet of 47 PC-9s, 40 or so Hawks and 25 primary trainers.

The RSAF currently fields 11 fast jet squadrons, plus another dozen squadrons of transports, helicopters, AWACS and ISTAR aircraft, and its training needs are growing as it absorbs a new generation of combat aircraft, including 72 Typhoons and 154 new F-15SAs, to say nothing of whatever aircraft underpin the planned expansion to 20 or so fast jet squadrons.

Analysts and observers are, therefore, already speculating as to whether this is merely an initial step in recapitalising the RSAF’s training machine, and ask whether the RSAF will soon be buying further trainer aircraft, or possibly whether the Saudis might retain some of their existing trainers. Certainly, the RSAF has often ‘staged’ the purchase of new aircraft in the past, as it did with the Tornado and Hawk, and as it seems likely to do with the Typhoon. This could mean that we will see a further order for more PC-21s and Hawk AJTs a few years down the line.

There has been some speculation that the RSAF may see the new Hawk AJT trainer aircraft as being solely intended to train aircrew for the Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, and that an alternative trainer could be selected to prepare pilots for the new F-15SA Eagle, perhaps waiting to see what decision the USAF makes when selecting an aircraft to meet its TX trainer requirement. This could see the RSAF operating different LIFT aircraft for its Typhoon/Tornado and Eagle forces.

Alternatively, the RSAF could be aiming to keep some of its existing Hawks and/or PC-9s in service. It is quite conceivable, for example, that some Hawk Mk 65/65A aircraft could be retained by the Saudi Hawks aerobatic team, or even to augment the new Hawk AJTs, especially if the older aircraft were to undergo an upgrade of the kind that has been mooted for some time by BAE Systems. Such an upgrade would give the Saudis a more modern cockpit at reasonable cost, perhaps allowing a PC-21 (basic)>Hawk 65/65A (advanced)>Hawk AJT (LIFT) training syllabus.

‘Progressing’ in training from the PC-21 to a Hawk 65 would require such an upgrade, since the analogue Hawk 65 would otherwise represent a backward step from the PC-21, except in terms of performance.

Alternatively, some or all of the existing PC-9 aircraft could be retained for a PC-9 (basic)>PC-21 (advanced)>Hawk AJT (LIFT) syllabus.

The Saudi order represented a welcome and much needed boost for both the Hawk and the PC-21, since although both are widely regarded as being excellent, class-leading trainers, both have been struggling to find the orders that would allow them to remain in production.

For Pilatus, before the Saudi order, PC-21 production looked set to end after the delivery of the final aircraft of 25 ordered by the UAE, probably in early 2014. The situation for the Hawk was even more critical, with UK production having ended with the final RAF Hawk T.Mk 2 (Hawk 128), though the Hawk 132 remains in production in India.