Three-time training boost for Saudi pilots
With deliveries of all three new trainer types ordered after a major revamp of its flying training system now under way, the Royal Saudi Air Force is entering a new era in which its student pilots will experience an advanced, all-digital cockpit environment before reaching the frontline. Jon Lake reports.
Having ordered at least an initial batch of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons, as well as 84 Boeing F-15SA Advanced Eagles, and with plans to upgrade 70 more existing F-15S Eagles to the same standard, the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) decided that it should also upgrade its pilot training fleet.
In May 2012, Saudi Arabia signed a £1.9bn ($3bn) deal with BAE Systems covering the supply of primary/elementary, basic and advanced training aircraft and related support services and training devices under the Saudi British defence cooperation programme (SBDCP).
For BAE Systems, the most important element of the deal was a contract for 22 Hawk Mk 165 Advanced Jet Trainers, which were to be similar in configuration and equipment to the Hawk T.Mk 2s supplied to Britain’s Royal Air Force. However, these would be equipped with a new data link, a different radio system and powered by an updated version of the Rolls-Royce Adour Mk.951 engine.
Like the RAF Hawks, the Saudi aircraft form an element within an overall training system, which includes synthetic training devices, various sensor and threat emulators and simulators, and other training equipment.
The new Saudi Hawks are also capable of dropping practice bombs and firing rockets and a 30mm gun pod, unlike the RAF’s new Hawks, which only simulate and emulate weapons dropping and strafe. This, of course, means that the Saudi aircraft could have a useful secondary front line close air support capability, if required.
The Saudi Hawk order was vital for BAE, since it allowed the company to re-start its Hawk production line and re-establish a supply chain that had disappeared following the completion of the RAF’s 28 Hawk T.Mk 2s.
The first Hawk Mk 165 made its maiden flight on September 16 2015 in the hands of Andy Blythe. It was the first Hawk to be assembled in the UK since 2010, and was also the first to be produced in the newly reconstituted and relocated Hawk assembly line, which was moved from Brough in East Yorkshire to Warton Aerodrome in Lancashire.
With an active production line, BAE has resumed efforts to sell the Hawk, marketing the aircraft to Oman (which ordered eight Mk 166s) and also to Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. 1,020 Hawks have now been delivered, or are on order, and BAE Systems estimates that some 650 of these are operating on a daily basis, logging some 160,000 flying hours each year. This has given the company a large market for support solutions, and provides potential customers with the certainty of continuing support and an on-going development effort.
As well as marketing Hawks based on the T.Mk 2/Advanced Jet Trainer configuration, BAE Systems has studied a number of advanced Hawk configurations. For India, which has already ordered 123 Hawks, BAE Systems has proposed a midlife upgrade to India’s existing Hawk Mk 132, under the tentative designation Mk132 Plus.
Following the Hawk’s demonstrated accuracy in weapons training, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has elected to use the Hawk as a combat aircraft in the close air support role, supporting the army. The IAF has, therefore, asked BAE Systems what extra capability could be added to the aircraft, within the constraints of using the existing Hawk airframe. India wants to incorporate a laser designator pod with laser-guided rockets and bombs, wingtip-mounted advanced short-range air-to-air (ASRAAM) missiles and defensive aids, including chaff and flare dispensers.
BAE Systems has also examined a new-build variant of the Hawk, which one programme insider referred to as the HAL chairman’s ‘Dream Hawk'.
This would incorporate a new, slatted wing, giving it much higher airframe performance, allowing it to land on shorter runways, and conferring a significant improvement in instantaneous turn rate and radius. The new version could have a longer, 10,000-hour service life, and could incorporate a number of features to bring down manufacturing costs.
The new variant would also feature a smart weapons package and a new cockpit with a single large area display replacing the current three multi-function displays, transforming the man-machine interface.
Following the signature of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on May 15, a demonstrator programme is going ahead, with a company Hawk (ZJ951, the Hawk new demonstrator aircraft) assigned to support the programme.
A combat Hawk with these modifications was apparently proposed to the UAE but, for India, the aircraft is being marketed as the ‘Advanced Hawk’.
By involving Indian industry in the supply chain, BAE Systems hopes to ensure that the new variant costs the same as, or even less than, the existing Hawk, which would make the aircraft very attractive to a wide range of potential customers.
In its full-year results statement for 2015, released on February 18, BAE Systems revealed that Saudi Arabia had signed for a second batch of 22 more Hawk 165s, and there are hopes that Saudi Arabia could eventually be a customer for the new ‘Advanced Hawk’.
By March 2016, the first two Hawk Mk 165s were flying in Saudi national markings, wearing the same two-tone air superiority blue grey camouflage as is applied to the air force’s Eurofighter Typhoons and new Boeing F-15SAs, having only been seen previously in yellow primer with British national markings.
The pair departed the BAE factory airfield at Warton on April 1 and arrived on delivery to King Faisal Airbase on April 6. They wear serials that suggest an assignment to the 21st Squadron, one of four Hawk 65/65A-equipped units at King Faisal Air Base Tabuk. The other units are the 37th, 79th and 88th Squadrons. The 88th Squadron is also known as the ‘Saudi Hawks’, the national formation aerobatics display team.
Under the terms of the agreement, the 22 (and now 44) Hawks were to be accompanied by 55 Pilatus PC-21 turboprop-powered basic trainers, an order which meant that the RSAF should eventually be the operator of the world’s largest PC-21 fleet.
The PC-21 is a new-generation successor to the previous PC-9, with a much expanded performance envelope (allowing it to better replicate fast jet handling and performance characteristics), an advanced digital glass cockpit, greater flexibility, and superior maintainability.
The aircraft features an embedded simulation and training suite, which provides cross-platform cockpit emulation, weapons simulation, a stores management system, simulated radar and electronic warfare systems, a tactical situation display, and data link functionality.
Pilatus began delivery of the first PC-21s to Saudi Arabia in June 2014, dispatching the first three aircraft from Stans on June 2 and three more a week later. By the end of 2015, 46 PC-21s had been delivered, replacing PC-9s with the 9th and 22nd Squadrons, which form part of the King Faisal Air Academy at Riyadh/King Khaled Air Base.
The third element within the new Saudi training system is being provided by 25 all-composite Cirrus Aircraft SR22 piston-engined primary/elementary trainers.
The SR22 aircraft is equipped with all the active and passive safety features standard on every Cirrus aircraft, including the Cirrus airframe parachute system (CAPS) and airbag seatbelts. The aircraft is fitted with Garmin’s Cirrus Perspective avionics suite.
Saudi Arabia is now the third air force that has recently ordered Cirrus SR20 or SR22 aircraft for primary training, after the United States and France.
The Saudi aircraft will provide primary flying training to the RSAF at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, replacing the mix of Cessna 172s and PAC Super Mushshaks that currently serve with the 8th Squadron.