June 26, 2013: Strategy page
France is, like the United States and many other European countries, making big cuts in their defense budgets. In response the French Air Force is adopting radical new training methods. Rather than cut the flying time of all pilots by 20 percent (from 180 hours a year to 150), half the pilots would remain at 180 hours while the other half would be reduced to 40 hours in combat aircraft (like the Rafale) and another 140 hours in a high-end trainer (that is much cheaper to operate than the Rafale, or similar aircraft.) If there were a major war and the second line pilots were needed, they would undergo 60-90 days of intense training in the Rafale, amounting to over a hundred hours of flight time, which the French air force leaders believe would make them roughly equal to the first line pilots in terms of capability.
All this is something of a gamble and it’s unclear if it will actually work. But the French have little choice since the money is not there to maintain 180 hours a year for everyone and as the recent operations in Mali made clear, you need highly skilled and experienced pilots to carry off operations like that without losing aircraft.
The U.S. currently and Russia during the 1990s used a similar two-tier system, where pilots not heading overseas had their flight hour cut. But when a squadron was scheduled for a trip to a combat zone, pilots got a lot more flying hours for the few months before they went. This apparently was sufficient to get the pilots back (or reasonably close to) their former (with 180 or more flight hours a year) competence levels. The U.S. is again using this system because of budget cuts.
There are several other unknowns. Cost issues may mean using a high end turboprop trainer instead of a jet trainer. Then there’s the issue of simulators. Research into the effectiveness of high-end simulators (which cost less than ten percent per hour compared to the actual aircraft) is still unclear when you try to substitute simulator time for a lot of actual flying hours (like down to 40 hours a year). It’s long been theoretically possible to substitute simulator hour for the lost flight time and still have a pilot able to perform at an acceptably high level. This new budget crises in Western air forces may be a way to finally clear up just how effective simulator use is.