Britain’s ‘Top Gun’ school could make Ukraine’s pilots even deadlier
President Zelensky is visiting the UK, and it is reported that he will be offered UK training for combat pilots, enabling Ukraine to operate NATO-standard aircraft sometime in the future. This comes hard on the heels of the tank training already in motion, and could set the foundation for the potential transfer of combat aircraft in the future – hopefully a very near one. While not offering actual aircraft, it could be a vital step in that process and maintain the momentum of western military aid. Moreover, the knowledge transfer would be invaluable in its own right.
Despite the much reported delays in the UK military flying training system, there are some relatively quick and simple ways to train pilots on the systems and weapons that NATO employs without further impact or delay. Although each aircraft type is different, the system and weapon basics are approximately 80 per cent common, so read-across is relatively straightforward. London’s offer could encompass postgraduate type training. The UK has facilities that do this routinely and provides some of the best, if not the best, weapons instructor training in the world. So not only would this be of the highest quality and value, it would not have any impact on UK capability or training.
This could be done largely through simulation that either replicates specific types of jet, or emulates the most common displays, symbology and mechanics of weapon employment in what are known as part task trainers. While there could well be a longer term offer for actual, and more basic, flying training, the priority now should be to train experienced or recently qualified pilots on the newer systems and modern tactics that NATO employs, in preparation for a future aircraft transfer.
To be crystal clear this is not a portent that UK aircraft types will follow; the training provided would be easily transferable to any modern type. I still hold the view that F16s offer the most complete solution for Ukraine because of their availability, multi role capability and the large number of potential donor nations. The UK training could easily emulate that aircraft and the tactics and weapons it might use. Many commentators have said that the time it takes to train on such a platform is a limiting factor and a reason to argue against it. This offer de-risks that significantly by starting the process of training as early as possible.
Many in the gaming community already enjoy their evenings in the cockpit of an F16 in the comfort of their own home, and in these terms this offer may not differ that much from the relatively sophisticated set ups now achievable commercially. Instead, the real value could be some of the best training and air combat knowledge in the world. The RAF isn’t just the oldest independent air force; person for person it remains one of the very best, and its postgraduate warfare training, which doesn’t make the news, is world renowned. With this offer, Ukraine could have its very own virtual “Top Gun” school – and we know how that story turns out.
Greg Bagwell CB CBE is a retired Air Marshal and combat pilot. He was the UK’s Air Commander for four years and is current President of the Air and Space Power Association