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25 Apr 2001 : Column 116WH

Armed Service Pilots

12.29 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this short debate on the recruitment, training and retention of pilots in our armed services. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is present to reply.

Our armed forces have a tremendous history of achievement. Members of Parliament from all parties are anxious that the standards of our forces are high and maintained. The people in the forces are vital in achieving that, as the Government acknowledged in their strategic defence review in 1998, which contained an entire chapter on policy for people. The Select Committee on Defence followed that up with an important report in February.

I shall discuss the people involved; military personnel, civil servants at the Ministry of Defence and civilian back-up people. They are the crucial element in our armed forces. In all our modern forces, people are extremely important. The Army requires many helicopter pilots, as does the Navy, which also requires fast jet pilots. The Royal Air Force, in particular, requires helicopter pilots, multi-engine aircraft pilots and fast jet pilots. I shall concentrate my remarks on the need to sustain an adequate supply of highly trained fast jet pilots. I shall rely a great deal on information published by the National Audit Office last September in a useful report entitled "Ministry of Defence: Training New Pilots".

The first point in the report was that the Government inherited a problem. There is no question that there was a shortage, but I shall not spend a lot of time on statistics. The NAO report contains many interesting statistics and graphs. The report covers the five years from 1994 to 1999, and makes the point that, over that period, the services required about 250 pilots. In fact, the number achieved on average fell short by 45 each year, or about 18 per cent. There was a significant shortfall in the availability of trained pilots over that period. The report refers to "an acute shortage" of fast jet pilots on the front line. I hope that we shall constructively deal with that matter in the short time available to us this morning.

The number of pilots available for operational service depends on recruitment, training and retention, and I shall say something about all three of those aspects. On recruitment, almost half the RAF trainee pilots come from university air squadrons. Others gained flying experience through the Air Training Corps. Most of us have probably had some contact with one or other of those organisations in our constituencies.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) in his place. It is common ground that those organisations need to be supported, nourished and encouraged. They are important in attracting new recruits to the RAF. The NAO report pointed out that about 20 per cent. of trainee pilots had no previous flying experience.

Of the three aspects of recruitment, training and retention, recruitment has not been the major problem. I wish to toss a factor into the debate to give the

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Secretary of State a chance to comment on it if he wishes. Should more women be recruited to be trained as pilots? The Select Committee report published in February homed in on the whole matter of such a policy as set out in the strategic defence review, but I do not believe that recruitment is the main area where most action is needed.

The National Audit Office report went into training in some depth. It is obvious that the success rate must be an important factor. Being a fast jet pilot is a demanding profession. The report points out that, for every 100 new trainees, 48 will be expected to complete fast jet training. Some trainees who do not succeed in becoming operational fast jet pilots become pilots of helicopters and other aircraft. However, given such high and exacting standards--which no one would want to lower--it is inevitable that there will be a high wastage rate. I do not believe that a lot can be done in that area, although we should keep examining the training procedures and ensuring that they are as good as possible.

An interesting point came out of the National Audit Office report. It concluded that a major factor in the shortfall of pilots over the period that they studied was the time that it took to train them. The time usually allocated for training was about three years, but in practice it took five. That had the effect of reducing the number of operational pilots who became available each year. The report said that that also had the effect of reducing the time for which pilots were available for service. The time taken to train a pilot was an important factor in the shortfall.

To its credit, the Royal Air Force has been considering the matter. In his evidence to the Select Committee in November, Air Vice Marshal Ian Corbitt, the chief executive of the Royal Air Force Training Group Defence Agency, said that some of the difficulties with training courses that had resulted in the pilots taking five years rather than three were being dealt with. That is certainly good news.

My next point is slightly tangential, but like many hon. Members, over the years I have taken considerable interest in the development of the Eurofighter, not least because of the important industrial interest that Edinburgh has in it. We are on the threshold of a major historic change in respect of fast jet pilots. The Eurofighter will come into service next year, and over the next decade or probably longer, we shall see a transition to heavy dependence on it. I should welcome the Secretary of State commenting on the training for the Eurofighter.

Evidence, both from the report and from our experience of talking to people in the services, suggests that we should direct our attention towards retention. The major factor is the attraction of the growing civil aviation sector. That is a problem of success--the economy has been growing well, so people's living standards have been rising. Not only is the economy growing but air traffic of all kinds--commercial, passenger and holiday traffic--has been growing even faster. Commercial airlines therefore have a huge need for trained personnel.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising that

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urgent and important issue. Is he aware that, two weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State four questions? I asked him to set out the anticipated shortfalls in fast jet pilots and single seat fast jet pilots for each of the next five years. I asked him how many fast jet pilots in the RAF and the Royal Navy are combat ready. I asked what the current shortages are of trained pilots for the Sea Harrier, Harrier GR7, Tornado F3, Tornado GR1, Tornado GR4 and the Jaguar. I also asked what is the maximum output of fast jet pilots from RAF Valley. To each of those questions, I received, yesterday, the answer, "I will answer shortly."

Surely it would be a terrible indictment of the Government's fundamental competence if they did not know the answer to those questions and could not acquire them in two weeks. Therefore, should there not be much more than a suspicion that the present situation is a good deal more alarming than the right hon. Gentleman and I suspect? The Government may be trying to cover up the issue, without answering such vital questions, until after the election.

Dr. Strang : I cannot accept that, but we are fortunate that the Secretary of State is present in this Chamber, and I am sure that he will try to throw light on this matter.

However, all hon. Members agree that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. One cannot wave a magic wand; whatever is done to address the matter will take time. I do not believe that there is any question of a cover-up; indeed, the National Audit Office report was useful. A great deal of evidence was presented to the Select Committee, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has studied. That evidence relates to recruitment as whole, not just that of pilots, in depth.

Clearly, the pressure from commercial airlines will not go away. It will probably be there indefinitely. It is a challenge that must be addressed. Indeed, someone in the RAF said to me the other day that there is evidence that the exodus from the RAF, including that of pilots, mirrored recruitment by civil airlines and their policies at the time.

My other point on retention, which is an obvious and basic one, is that a trained fast jet pilot is a hugely valuable resource. I do not want to go into details on the figures, but it costs more than £3 million--perhaps as much as £4 million--to train a fast jet pilot to the point at which he is capable of operational service. On that ground alone, it is vital that we secure the maximum service from the individuals concerned as pilots.

To their credit, the Government have already started to address the issue. The announcement on pay a few months ago included a further two financial incentives. Some people say that, in terms of salary, the Government cannot compete with the commercial airlines, and that they should not try to do so. I do not accept that. Of course the commercial airlines will always be able to pay high salaries, but financial incentives have a part to play. I put it no stronger than that. I am not saying that the Government can pay the same money as the commercial airlines, and I congratulate the Government on having introduced several measures to address the problem. If one reads the Select Committee report, it suggests that the Government's response has been radical. Certainly, it is

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a start; it is too early to say what effect the incentives will have. If the Secretary of State has information on the matter, that would be helpful. The important point is that, to his credit, the Secretary of State has ensured that action is beginning to be taken to tackle the problem.

The Government's strategic defence review made it clear that our forces were more likely to be taking part in overseas deployments. Peacekeeping and humanitarian activities are facts of our modern world. Since the general election in 1997, we have seen such deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and northern and southern Iraq. There has been no shortage of challenges facing the Government in relation to the use and role of our armed services. It is clear that the shortage of pilots has not inhibited the Government from meeting such challenges. We are all proud of the role that our forces have played.

It is important to clarify that there is no evidence that the shortage of pilots has had an adverse effect on the quality of the contribution of our forces in such deployments. That is not to say, however, that there is not a problem. There has been a danger of overstretch. There is a worry that excessive demands could be made on our pilots. We must avoid that. The quality of life and the time between deployments are important factors to bear in mind. A shortage of pilots means that the time that they can spend with their families between deployments is much shorter. Let us face it: by definition, a fast jet pilot is at the peak of his productive ability. He would often have a young family, so it is important that we face the matter in the round and follow through the changes and initiatives that the Government have already taken. I congratulate them on that. We must create a climate in which we can retain the fast jet pilots for longer than we are doing at present. I suggest that securing a full complement of highly trained pilots is a challenge that has not only been faced by the present Government but will face the next Government after the election.

12.47 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon) : I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) for the opportunity to debate such an important issue. It is one in which I have taken a close personal interest.

The challenge of manning operational squadrons and the services' flying training organisations with sufficient pilots against the pool from the civilian airlines is not new. It goes back even before the constructive National Audit Office report to which my right hon. Friend referred. As long ago as 1988, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body drew attention to the issue. It is a problem that is facing most NATO air forces and many other air forces throughout the world. The situation has been deteriorating slowly for some time.

The current position is that on 1 March 2001 we had about 196 fewer pilots in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy than we would ideally like. That translates into about 79 empty cockpits at the front line in relation to 42 RAF fast jets, 22 support helicopters, five Sea Harriers and 10 Royal Navy helicopters. The Army had

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a surplus of 38 junior officer pilots and a small deficit of non-commissioned officer pilots. The figures change all the time and depend on the definitions that are used, which is why I can assure the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that there has been no cover-up. His questions will be answered at 3.30 this afternoon.

The deficit is forecast to continue for several years, mainly because of the pressures of a global shortage of pilots arising from the sustained growth in the civilian airline sector. However, we are not complacent about the matter and have taken steps to address the problem across the complete spectrum of requirement, training and retention. Yet more work is in hand, and as recently as 13 March, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, the Minister for the Armed Forces informed the House that a comprehensive review of aircrew retention had been commissioned to report in the autumn. Three main factors must be in harmony if the services are to be manned with sufficient pilots with the right balance of experience. I will deal with each in turn. I begin with the requirement--that is, how many pilots do the services need?

The requirement for pilots is generated largely by the number of aircraft on the front line. It also reflects how those aircraft are expected to be employed to meet their operational task. Obviously, the more intensively we plan to fly the aircraft, the greater the pilot-aircraft ratio will need to be. Those factors were scrutinised carefully during the strategic defence review, and I am satisfied that we have the balance right.

Another factor that drives the requirement for pilots is the need to fill certain ground appointments with personnel who have had first-hand experience of flying aircraft and of air operations. Such posts include those in headquarters concerned with aspects of planning or commanding air operations, some flight safety appointments, and equipment capability appointments for procurement of new systems. Additionally, some personnel are required for training posts. Appointments which fall into that category have been rigorously scrutinised, and as a consequence about 500 RAF posts have been disestablished or will in future be filled by members of the operations support or other ground branches. We are therefore making the most effective use of our pilots' skills and training.

The next factor to be considered is the provision of an adequate flow of newly qualified pilots from the training organisations. I am delighted to say that recruitment is buoyant and that for the year ending 30 March 2001, the RAF met 100 per cent. of its pilot recruitment target. The Royal Navy and the Army achieved similar success rates. Military flying is especially challenging and the services rightly demand the highest standards of their pilots. To ensure that those standards can be met, careful selection is undertaken and appropriate training given. That is a lengthy and expensive process--as my right hon. Friend mentioned--but a vital one if our aircrew are to continue to operate successfully in demanding operational theatres.

The flying training pipeline is both long and complex. It varies depending on the background of the trainee--those who enter via university air squadrons, for example, will already have some basic flying experience; those who enter directly from school are likely to have none. I will describe the route followed by trainees

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destined to fly fast jets, because that is the most lengthy and demanding training profile, and the one on which my right hon. Friend concentrated.

All RAF student pilots start the training process at the RAF college at Cranwell. There they undertake a 24-week initial officer training course. The Navy undertakes similar training at the Britannia Royal Naval college at Dartmouth and the Army at Sandhurst for their officers--NCO pilots are recruited only from within the service. After successful completion of that course, flying training commences and all direct entrants undertake elementary flying training, except for recruits who have already completed that stage as members of a university air squadron. Elementary training involves 62 hours of flying and ground instruction, and gives the student the skills needed to fly safely.

Those students selected for training for fast jets then undertake basic fast jet training at RAF Linton-on-Ouse on the turbo-prop Tucano aircraft. The basic training includes 131 hours of flying and is a lead-in to the 107-hour advanced tactical training course. Following conversion flying on Hawk aircraft, students master advanced flying techniques, such as high-speed low-level flying, which is vital to the effective performance of operational tasks. Students are also trained in air tactics and undertake weapons training for the first time. That training is undertaken at RAF Valley in Anglesey but 20 students each year go to the NATO flying training school in Canada. During the advanced training phase, the successful students are awarded their wings.

Before the new fast jet pilot can be assessed as suitable for operations he--or, increasingly she, to respond directly to my right hon. Friend--needs to undertake a further period of training at one of the strike command operational conversion units or, in the case of Royal Navy pilots, the 899 Naval Air Squadron Sea Harrier conversion unit. There is an OCU for each fast jet type and at the OCU the pilot learns to fly and operate the specific aircraft type--not just the different flying characteristics of the aircraft and its unique equipment but the tactics particular to the type.

For example, a Tornado GR1 pilot will learn advanced evasion skills, automatic terrain following, electronic counter-measures and advanced air-to-ground weaponry techniques. The training for the more demanding and capable aircraft types, such as the Tornado GR1, typically takes just over four years and in their report last year on flying training, the National Audit Commission assessed the cost as about £6 million.

There is a limit on the number of newly qualified pilots who can be absorbed by the front line without impairing operational efficiency, and it is critical that the planned training output should be met, because it is almost impossible to increase output sharply in subsequent years to compensate for any shortfall. Even if output were to be increased, there would be the danger of swamping front-line squadrons with too many inexperienced pilots.

Additional resources have been provided to ensure that training targets are met, and that includes fully staffing the training systems by making additional flying instructors available at RAF Valley. Innovative means have also been adopted to maintain output and cope with the unexpected. For example, students are

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currently undertaking basic flying training with the Royal Australian Air Force, to cover the gap caused by the temporary grounding of the Tucano fleet last year.

My right hon. Friend asked about Eurofighter. We must get manning right so that the new aircraft can be brought into service in the planned numbers and within the planned time scales. That is a top priority. It is planned that the first conversion course for RAF pilots will begin in August 2004, which will be for experienced pilots. Training for novice pilots will begin in November 2004. Overall, Eurofighter will not generate substantial demand for pilots until 2006-07, whereas we expect the pilot shortage to ease from 2003 onwards.

For the future, we are conducting a study that is known as the United Kingdom military flying training system. That will lead to the development of a strategy to ensure that appropriate flying training, from start to finish, is in place for the latter part of the decade.

I shall deal with the third factor that I mentioned at the outset--retention. That is the most important factor, because it can be influenced relatively quickly. I have explained the considerable amount of training and the substantial associated cost that is necessary to produce combat-ready pilots. That makes it important that such pilots stay in substantial numbers and for long periods. That makes financial and operational sense.

Of course, such an argument applies equally to all our service personnel, which is why we have introduced a comprehensive programme to make service life more attractive with the aim of improving retention. I shall not discuss those measures, but I can let my right hon. Friend have the details.

Many general factors must be addressed but additional measures to improve air crew retention have been introduced, some very recently. The rate of flying pay has been improved substantially for more experienced pilots and, where particular shortages were identified, targeted financial incentives have been introduced. Such incentives are £50,000 for Royal Navy Sea Harrier pilots and £10,000 per annum for two years for pilots aged over 38. LINKUP, a scheme that helps air crew obtain civilian pilot's licences in exchange for a commitment to longer military service, has been introduced, and eligibility has subsequently been extended. Many pilots are taking advantage of the scheme, and it has been judged to be a success.

Service secretaries are offering extensions of service to pilots who wish to continue beyond normal retirement age, and that is helping to reduce pilot deficits. Attempts are underway to recruit younger pilots with the aim of increasing the return of service that is linked to the in-service degree. Additionally, amortisation periods are being reviewed, with the possibility of increasing the return of service following training.

The pull from civilian airlines is unlikely to diminish, and we must face that long-term problem. For that reason, we have set up a working group specifically to make recommendations on how we may improve air crew retention. The working group has been given wide-ranging terms of reference to examine all factors that influence the subject, and it has been directed to report by the autumn so that, where a financial response is appropriate, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body may take our reviews into account for its 2002 report. The working group, assisted by a specialist consultant and

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with Treasury representation, is collating the views of about 1,000 air crew to pinpoint what factors must be addressed.

In conclusion, I make no attempt to disguise that we have fewer pilots than we would ideally like for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The main cause of that shortfall is a disappointing retention figure. However, such a situation is faced by virtually every air force in the world. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government are not complacent about the matter, and that we have taken, and will continue to take, vigorous steps to address the problem.

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