July 24, 2012
New 'Top Gun' training academy is not a "private army," says Maverick owner
Contributor: Andrew Elwell
Posted: 07/24/2012 12:00:00 AM EDT | 0
What if a commercial enterprise could buy a fleet of fighters, lease an international airbase and hire out their services to militaries around the globe for them to train their air forces against within a network-centric warfare environment. A privately-owned integrated opposing force (IOPFOR).
Sound like an ambitious plan? Not for Melville ten Cate, Founder of Schiphol-based ECA Program B.V. In 2005, despite the obvious protestations from naysayers about acquiring aircraft from Russia, ten Cate decided he was going to give it a try. http://www.ecaprogram.com/index.html
"How do you know it's impossible? Has anyone actually been to Moscow to try it?"
He told me in an interview: "Two weeks before the Paris Air Show we sent a fax over to Moscow to see if they were open to discussing the idea and 24 hours later we received a response saying there would be a delegation waiting for us."
And so the venture was set into motion. While ten Cate admits that "things became a lot more complicated, really quickly," the business plan ECA has put together is commercially viable; earlier this year the firm raised €283 million (£220 million) from investors.
"Ultimately the idea was to see if we can do Red Flag again. We came to the conclusion that governments didn't have the money anymore to do this out of their own pockets … it's too expensive. Not only do individual nations not have the cash, they also don't have the perceived threat to justify spending that cash."
"It's very important to note that we represent a generic enemy," ten Cate said. "We're not imitating anybody."
ECA has been in negotiations with the Belarusians for some time as it tries to get the acquisition of a fleet of Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker" jets off the ground.
However, ECA is not buying the Flanker so that opposing forces can learn how to defeat it. It is also looking to acquire more lightweight fighters, such as the Chengdu J-10, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen to offer a more diversified training platform for customers. It is not, ten Cate insisted, acquiring the J-10, MiG or Gripen so that militaries can understand how to fight against the J-10, MiG or the Gripen.
How can ECA assure its suppliers that the aircraft they provide will not be exploited by other militaries? Doesn't it compromise tactical relevance?
According to ten Cate there are two key reasons why he doesn't believe this is an issue. First, many of the systems ECA is procuring can be modified, or "dumbed down."
"We don't need a lot of the systems you'd expect for a typical fighter; we don't have war modes. We don't have data links to communicate with missiles because we're not firing any missiles. We don't have missile approach warning systems. We don't need to have the same sort of jamming capabilities that you would expect from an operational unit."
The other important factor is that, as ten Cate points out, "the Flanker isn't really relevant as a threat anymore." The platforms that ECA is looking to acquire are not the next generation threat – it's not the F-35.
"We're providing a fourth generation training support system in a world where … all the manufacturers are focusing on the fifth generation aircraft. The Flanker secrets, the MiG secrets, the J-10 secrets are all pretty much out there; buy a book on Amazon … you can puzzle it together, it's not that difficult.
"There's about 3% which is locked in a vault that you don't get to know about but the rest, with a bit of research, you can get a good picture of what's going on. With the Flanker and MiG the cat's out of the bag."
ECA is providing training support, acting as an opposing force to its customers. For these purposes it doesn't need to use the latest platforms. One of ECA's key selling points is not the promise of training against a specific fighter; it's fighting an opposing force in an integrated and network centric environment.
It's the integration of fighters with a range of other real-world systems that makes ECA's offering unique.
"Everybody keeps coming back to the question about which plane we are going to use," said ten Cate. "But the plane isn't that important when you consider the big picture of the integrated network. The plane is just another tool in that network, same as ground-based radars or antennas. The plane is a node on a network, it doesn't operate alone and nor does it operate by itself."
Could it really work?
In all government departments "outsourcing is now becoming more acceptable as an alternative" due to budget restrictions.
ECA offers its customers a "fractional ownership" of its jets and systems, which will include C4ISR capabilities, jammers, cyber warfare programmes and, potentially, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars.
"Now that people have less money in hand they become more open to the Avis Rent A Car concept: you pay for what you use."
The company has raised a significant amount of capital, with which it's already bought six lightweight aircraft, so investors must be able to see value in the business case. So too can the end user, with ten Cate saying that a number of Air Forces have shown interest in the project.
"We've been talking to the Singaporeans and to Middle Eastern Air Forces like the Saudi's, the Qatari's, the UAE. We've been talking to the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy and we've been talking to the Canadians … You can include the Swedish, the Norwegians, France and the Dutch too.
"There is definitely a market for this kind of training, but the key word is: control."
ECA is aware that there are a number of issues that could hinder the progress of its IOPFOR concept. Chief among these is the fear from customers that some of their tactical information will leak if they use ECA's training services. How can they be sure that all the computers will be wiped after use, leaving no trace of sensitive data? How can they be sure there aren't any 'sniffing' devices on the aircraft?
"We have to put procedures in place to give our customers the confidence that we can control all of these variables … but as we grow and our operations become more well-known I think this will become less of an issue. We know we have to build that trust first."
Melville ten Cate says that outsourcing sensitive military operations to the private sector is "the price you pay to make training affordable." It's the affordability aspect that ECA's IOPFOR project hinges on. There is a demand for an aggressor combat training service if it's provided at an attractive price point.
What about those that say you're accruing a "private army"?
"It's completely ludicrous," ten Cate said abruptly and bluntly.
"We've heard this so many times that I could be very abrupt and very blunt about it but the claims are absolutely ludicrous.
"It's a conspiracy theory gone haywire. I know it'll always be there, just like some people will always want to believe that the Pentagon was really hit by a cruise missile [during the 9/11 attacks], because it sells newspapers and makes for good reading.
"But the fact is we disarm all of our aircraft, we don't have any operational armaments, and we don't even have the software for it. We're a training support company."
You get the impression ten Cate has been waiting to set the record straight on that issue. ECA is a commercial enterprise and it's important to note that the combat fighter training isn't the only project ECA is exploring.
"We're not just working on the IOPFOR concept. What keeps getting missed is that we're looking at other ventures too – for example we have an A320 VVIP conversion programme where we hope to operate a fleet of VVIP jets in about 12 to 16 months. That often gets swept under the carpet."
With an army of investors to satisfy ten Cate knows that the company cannot rely entirely on military customers; it needs a balanced order book. IOPFOR accounts for around 80% of ECA's activities at the moment but ten Cate is working at bringing this down to 60% in the coming years.
The next step
In October the company is conducting its first operational deployment where it will be acting as an opposing force, conducting sorties over three weeks which will include signature management, target recognition and data sharing exercises.
"Getting a good report from the operational deployment in October should help in securing the funding at the end of this year," said ten Cate. "It will park the whole thing in reality."
ECA is looking to raise another €150 million (£117 million) by the end of the year to acquire more assets. The company expects to be at full operational capability, which will include everything like all the ground systems and C4ISR capabilities as well as the aircraft, by "no later than 2014."
"There are people out there who operate aircrafts, but that's just aircraft," said ten Cate. "It's not integrated, there's no cyber or electronic warfare aspect to the training, there's no command and control or any network centric capabilities whatsoever. What we're doing is a completely new industry."
Elon Musk, the entrepreneur that The New York Times dubbed the world's first Thrillionaire, was viewed with suspicion when he said he wanted to send tourists to Mars a decade ago. Yet last year, when his company SpaceX became the first private entity to send a rocket to dock with the International Space Station, the Head of NASA declared this "a new era of space exploration."
Ambition is often laughed at before it's lauded. The telephone, Henry Ford's motor company, the microwave – history is littered with examples.
"We are the way of the future, we're on the cutting edge of a growing market segment," ten Cate said. "We're the guys with the microwaves."
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