Textron sees growing demand for air combat training services

RAF FAIRFORD, England (Reuters) - U.S. group Textron Inc is launching a new company on Friday that will use its private fleet of older fighter jets and experienced former military pilots to provide combat training for U.S. military forces, the head of the new unit told Reuters.

Textron Airborne Solutions was created after Textron earlier this year acquired Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), the world’s largest firm providing adversarial role playing and other live tactical training services for air forces

“The air services business is exploding. It could grow to billions of dollars over time,” Russ Bartlett, president and chief executive officer of the new unit, told Reuters in an interview. Bartlett previously headed Textron’s Beechcraft Defense unit, maker of the T-6 turboprop air force training aircraft.

Bartlett, a former commander of the U.S. Navy’s elite Blue Angels performance squadron, said outsourcing live air training to the private sector saved the U.S. military money and helped preserve U.S. military jets and pilots for actual missions.

ATAC, which operates a fleet of 27 former foreign fighter jets, is the only civilian group approved to train with the U.S Navy’s elite Top Gun fighter weapons school and the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptors. It has a staff of 35 former fighter pilots, with aircraft on both U.S. coasts and in Hawaii and Japan.

Before a U.S. carrier strike group deploys, ATAC pilots fly their own jets equipped with jamming pods to simulate opposition forces and help prepare the ship and pilots for possible air-to-air or air-to-ship threats.

ATAC pioneered the idea of using private firms for live air training in 1996, but the concept has gained acceptance around the world as military forces seek to save on flight hours on ageing aircraft for actual missions instead of using them for training.

Bartlett said Textron would help ATAC expand the existing market and look for new opportunities in areas such as basic pilot training, and training for ground-based troops that call in air strikes.

Outsourcing frees up military jets and pilots for actual missions, he said, noting that in 2015 the U.S. Navy flew 6,000 hours of missions simulating opposition forces -- the current life span of a Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

“Every time you use one of the (U.S. Department of Defense’s) own airplanes to provide those essential training services, it’s just consuming the life of that precious resource that could be very comfortably and affordably outsourced,” he said,

The U.S. Navy is currently ATAC’s biggest customer, but it also works for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps, Bartlett said.

Editing by Greg Mahlich