My good friend George Bernard Shaw once said: “I like to quote myself; it adds spice to my conversations”. Of course I dare not compare myself with Mr Shaw, although I must admit I am much more attractive than he could ever presume (apologies for the insolence, Mr Shaw).
And as it so happens, the Armada has finally decided to ground its AEW assets as has been anticipated here on one too many occasions. We shall have ample time to repent and lament, but for the moment, “I said so”.
But as James Hacker elegantly put it, “every problem is not but an opportunity”. Of course this is indeed a great problem, so I presume the opportunity will also be a major one. We find ourselves in a good position to rethink the training process of the AEW crew because, whether some like it or not, the Armada will have no alternative but to bring back what it has grounded. So why not start thinking about an issue which is due to come back in due course (and, perhaps, jump up and bite us in our arse)?
Finding the right person for a specific job is a task that only few can master. It requires, in my view, somebody who can perform that same job himself with a high degree of excellence. Other qualities are necessary, however; being a good professional doesn´t make you a good recruiter. Only then will the recruiter be in a position to judge whether a certain character has what it takes to perform his duties, after following an adequate learning curve.
In our case, and to set a hypothetical example, someone who has been dedicated to engineering for quite a few years hardly makes him an ideal candidate to fly as a Tactical Director in an AEW. Not that he can´t complete the training, but he´s been dedicated to such a specific field, with such a specific training, that it simply isn´t worth the investment.
Some years ago, the Navy certainly learned this lesson when it acquired the AEW-Searchwater. Back then the initial step was to select a group of people to be trained as Fighter Allocators and Tactical Directors. So they picked pilots to do the job, under the vague assumption that if it has to do with aeronautical things, pilots are the ones who know about it. OK, very vague. Of course this experiment only lasted a few months (in my view, only a few days should have sufficed to appreciate the ridicule) because if you ask a pilot what he´d rather do, fly his aircraft or sit in the back, the doubt is almost insulting. And it goes both ways, too.
If we take a look at the nations which enjoy the luxury of this capability, they have a tendency to recruit based on the assumption that their members will exercise this job for an extended period of time. After all, we are talking about a training process which can extend for 10 months plus an additional period for validation. It is a long and costly course and the ultimate goal, that is, to become a Tactical Director, is not without its challenges and difficulties, and the process can extend for a number of years before one is in a condition to become a Mission Commander of an AEW.
Until quite recently, AEW´s were somewhat enslaved to their respective armed force; a Navy AEW would not dare take it upon itself to perform in a ground environment, just as an Air Force AEW would not even think about tackling a maritime scenario. But as of today, this is no longer an issue. To a degree, it doesn´t much matter what markings the aircraft has on its fuselage because in today´s joint environment, there is no room for individualism. Furthermore, it is precisely in this AEW world where the “joint” concept has reached significant level of meaning. A bit more on this to come.
To be able to understand how an AEW crew member is trained, first we must be keenly aware of the difficulties he will encounter. And the first one is communication. It is a known fact that understanding the army, navy and air force jargon is no easy feat, particularly when the AEW crew has to be able to translate the different concepts to the other counterparts. This implies that they must be fluent in the procedures each armed force has, and this is difficult to master. To set a very easy example, the word “contact” can have different meanings depending on the environment; for a sailor, it´s a surface, subsurface or air object, but for a soldier it refers to the encounter of a friendly force with an adversary. The fact that AEW crews no longer concentrate exclusively on providing tactical control, but rather on exploring, detecting, identifying, classifying, evaluating and disseminating information to whatever force they provide their service to, clearly shows the challenge these crews are up against.
Another difficulty to take into account is tactical control procedures, which are not always identical. A lot was achieved when the Airnorth Manual 80-6 came into existence, as it unified with great success the different techniques used by one too many countries. But that doesn´t quite cover all the difficulties, as providing tactical control to very different kinds of aircraft performing very different kinds of missions is indeed a great challenge.
So, when do we begin training?. As always, the sooner the better, but in the particular case of the Navy (at least), I would strongly recommend a few years in the CIC of a ship in order to become familiar with navy tactical procedures. It´s important to know who you´re providing support, how and why, and these questions are easily answered when you have found yourself on an escort or any such ship in need of an AEW to be able to answer. In this respect, the Royal Navy and the Armada have taken care to select their observer after spending some time in the Fleet, something which we will well do in maintaining.
This Fleet-period (which in the Armada is not applied to pilots) certainly helps overcome some embarrassing situations; on many occasions I´ve heard air crews bitterly complain about their surface counterparts on an escort on their inability to perform specific duties or not doing them quickly enough. But these aircrews sometimes complain because they are not aware that, on an escort, there are a great many things to deal with, not only aircraft; subsurface, surface and air pictures have to be maintained and priorities must be set. Landing a helicopter on deck, to set an example, may not be a priority when there is a sonar contact in the area and the aircraft has fuel for three additional hours. And sometimes we airmen don´t think about these issues in the firm belief that “surely our mission is the priority”. So spending some time with other main units seems like a good idea, if not a critical one, before tackling the AEW (or any airborne function, for the matter).
How long must the training period last?. The Armada decided on a solution which is arguably suitable: phases are completed on an hourly basis. That is, after reaching a certain amount of flight hours, you automatically make it to the next level. This system raises some serious issues; spending many hours airborne doesn´t necessarily mean they have been dedicated to all sorts of missions. Establishing a Recognized Air Picture mission, to set an example, doesn´t require a rocket scientist, but directing a COMAO in a SCAR mission can be quite a challenge (maybe even a rocket scientist isn´t enough in this case!). In my view, each level throughout the training process must be completed depending and the number and type of missions with their corresponding evaluating tests, rather than the number of hours the student has been in the company of Daedalus. Furthermore, after completing ground training, spending some time as ground crew preparing missions and briefing the crews is also a very healthy approach to learning the ropes on mission planning, thus relieving the crews of some of the pressure.
Other factors can be more or less important but impracticability in some cases forces us to exclude them from our considerations. As an example, having an AEW located in the same base as the aircraft it usually provides its service to is of great value, as the crews providing the service and the ones receiving it can meet regularly, laying the ground stones for revisions, developing experimental tactics and analysing results on a face to face basis.
Now that the AEW service in the Armada has been annihilated, stupidly as we will have time to be sorry for, ahead lays a wonderful opportunity to start thinking about how we will start anew in the future; make no mistake: this capability will be reinstated as soon as it becomes apparent to whom it may concern that an air arm in a carrier air group without AEW is just about as incomprehensible as having amphibious ships without landing decks.
And in order to go back to square one with a good load of ideas gained from years of experience, the following issues must be met:
1.- Training: The Royal Navy has provided us with important lessons in this field. Training must be, as a general rule, be divided in three phases:
– Acquiring tactical knowledge which can only be learnt serving in the units, whatever their nature.
– Serve as a ground crew learning how to prepare missions and deliver proper briefs.
– Serve as an aircrew an follow the required steps until one is ready to become a Tactical Director.
2.- Service Time: being an observer for only three or four years has proved to be a ill decision; the training is a long and arduous process, as it is expensive, and it is necessary that those who undergo it spend enough time exercising so as to make the effort and investment worthwhile.
3.- Exportability: once an observer has served with distinction, his knowledge must not end there; rather, his expertise can and should be put into use in other areas. In the Navy´s environment, they most likely make excellent Above Water Warfare Officers because of their knowledge.
Up to now, we have managed to provide the Navy with excellent Tactical Directors. Of course it could have been done with more or less efficiency, but it is always easier to make decisions with the benefit of hindsight. And now, we have that benefit and need to take advantage of it. True there is no indication in the horizon that the AEW capability will start flying again any time soon. But as they say: if you start talking about it, people will eventually start thinking about it.