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Armed Forces: Foreign Pilot Training

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to fill vacant places in military pilot training programmes with foreign service personnel.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Colour Sergeant Kevin Fortuna, 1st Battalion The Rifles, Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, 42 Commando Royal Marines, Marine Samuel Alexander MC, 42 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Michael Pike, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, Lance Corporal Martin Gill, 42 Commando Royal Marines, Rifleman Martin Lamb, 1st Battalion The Rifles, Corporal Lloyd Newell, the Parachute Regiment, Craftsman Andrew Found, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers attached to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and Private Gareth Bellingham, 3rd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who were all killed recently on operations in Afghanistan. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

As a result of the strategic defence and security review, the Royal Air Force has reduced its long-term requirement for pilots of all platforms. Consequently, a decision was taken in February to reduce the numbers of UK trainee pilots undergoing the initial phase of flying training. It will take some time to remove the resulting additional spare capacity from the training programme and we are actively seeking to offer any surplus training slots to foreign students.

I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the Minister. I am not sure whether he is aware that I have been on an Armed Forces parliamentary scheme and visited RAF training stations. I have been made aware of the considerable number of training vacancies for fast-jet pilots. Does the Minister agree that when the UK sells military aircraft, it is prudent to have a world-class training facility where affordable places are available to foreign pilots? Does he recognise also the wonderful relationships with foreign pilots that are generated during pilot training, with proven long-term results for diplomatic relations in times of trouble and conflict?

My Lords, I was aware that my noble friend was doing the Armed Forces parliamentary scheme and I very much commend the important work that it does. The Ministry of Defence recognises the value to the country obtained from training pilots from partner countries. We are at the early stage of discussions with the UK defence industry to explore how best to take this issue forward. Supporting the training needs of our partners and allies provides important defence and diplomacy benefits—for example, the involvement of Denmark in operations in Libya—and is also a critical factor in securing contracts for defence export sales, which are worth billions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the UK defence industry.

My Lords, on this side we, too, offer our sincere condolences to the families and friends of Colour Sergeant Kevin Fortuna, Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, Marine Samuel Alexander MC, Corporal Michael Pike, Lance Corporal Martin Gill, Rifleman Martin Lamb, Corporal Lloyd Newell, Craftsman Andrew Found and Private Gareth Bellingham, all of whom were killed recently on active service in Afghanistan. Like the Minister, we pay tribute to those who have been wounded and face lengthy rehabilitation. We have been reminded again this afternoon of the enormous sacrifices being made by the members of our Armed Forces.

The Minister said that the Government were seeking to offer any surplus training slots to foreign trainee pilots. Will such personnel pay the marginal costs of their training or the full economic costs, bearing in mind the additional expenditure that we now face in respect of our operations in Libya? How long will the training of foreign personnel continue—the Minister referred to the time that it would take to remove spare capacity from the training programme—and approximately how many foreign personnel does he expect that we will be training?

My Lords, flying training for foreign students under international defence training is provided at full cost. Training provided by the UK Armed Forces is rightly considered as some of the best in the world. As such, we expect demand to continue. We have no plans for that to diminish. I do not have with me the figures on how many foreign students are trained. I am aware that for this financial year— 2010-11—the requirement was for 155 students in total to be trained. I will write to the noble Lord with the exact figures on foreign students.

My Lords, I should like first to join these Benches in the earlier tribute.

Given that, unfortunately, for the next 10 years or so we are going to be without our own aircraft carrier, can my noble friend tell the House what plans the Government have to maintain carrier training of pilots using French and American aircraft carriers, and what the appropriate financial arrangements are going to be?

My Lords, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots have for a number of years undertaken carrier training with our allies; and, as my noble friend said, we are currently in discussions with the French and the US navies on future training programmes ahead of the Queen Elizabeth carriers entering service. The Royal Navy currently has two pilots training with the US navy. In addition, the RAF and the Royal Navy have five exchange officers serving in the US navy flying the F/A-18 and AV-8B aircraft. As for the financial arrangements, as discussions are ongoing, the financial arrangements are still being considered.

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has, in a sense, answered the sheer complexity of the last question. Being able to operate a large-deck carrier with fast jets is incredibly complicated. I understand that we have a few pilots training with the Americans and the French, but will he please confirm that we are going to establish a focus, a package of training and all the measures attached, rather like we had for the CSSE when we did this with the Polaris programme, so that we can drive from now until the first large-deck carrier is fully operational? By removing the Harriers, it is very difficult. It needs a real focus, and we need to do something like that.

I can give the noble Lord the information that he wants not just on the pilots but on the whole of the deck-handling operation. We are looking at this very closely with both of our allies.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that UK-trained foreign pilots will be better able to work alongside our own forces in future conflicts?

My Lords, the European Defence Agency recently awarded helicopter training for six NATO and Partners for Peace organisations to AgustaWestland, which will take place in Wiltshire. Does the Minister agree that this is an excellent role for the EDA and an excellent result? Does he see other opportunities from the EDA for similar training in the United Kingdom?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am not fully briefed on what we could get from the EDA, but we welcome our foreign friends and allies sending pilots for training over here. We give an excellent service.