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With Trainers Scarce, Military Tries Civilians

October 18, 1987|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

When cadets in the Kuwaiti air force show up for flight training next year, they will be greeted not by Kuwaiti military instructors but by American civilians who are employees of McDonnell Douglas.

Kuwait, an emirate about the size of New Jersey, has 50 combat jets, but its air force does not have an academy to train its pilots. So, the Persian Gulf monarchy recently turned to Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach to set up and staff a military flight training institute.

In a similar program, Douglas, a subsidiary of McDonnell Douglas, is bidding to have its instructors teach U.S. Air Force pilots to fly the new C-17 cargo jet. And the Navy has contracted with Douglas to provide T-45 jet trainers and everything the service needs to teach its cadets how to fly the new plane.

These programs are part of a major new business growth area that Douglas has targeted with hopes of capturing industry leadership. They also mark a shift in military culture--the privatization of training.

Although the market is still in its infancy, aerospace contractors are leaping at what is developing into a multibillion-dollar business for armed services training. So far, the virtually untapped U.S. military is the target of greatest opportunity.

"The budget pressures on the Department of Defense lead them more and more to put labor intensive services outside," Douglas President William T. Gross said. "The market will grow."

Under its current authorization from Congress, the military services are allowed to have 2,174,250 people in uniform on active duty. But this limit on the military forces has not grown nearly as fast in recent years as the Pentagon budget.

As a result, the Pentagon is strapped for manpower and it is increasingly turning to private contractors for services such as equipment maintenance, military base support and, most importantly, training.

"Let's say there is enough in the budget for 1,000 men in naval aviation," Gross said in a recent interview. "It is much better from the Navy's standpoint to have 1,000 of them be trained pilots, rather than have 800 of them be trained pilots and 200 of them doing the training. That's the principle."

This represents a big change, because military training in the United States has historically been the exclusive province of the military itself. Training is a cornerstone in the creation of the military mind, which traditionally views humans as weak and in need of organization.

"There is an element of the neophyte getting inculcated into the fraternity," said Capt. Bruce Marshall, program manager for the Navy's T-45 training system. "In training, the student needs to see a naval aviator wearing wings at the podium."

The Navy is trying not to change that--at least initially--but at the same time is taking an innovative approach to improve its flight training systems and reduce costs, Marshall said.

Meanwhile, aerospace contractors are aggressively looking for new growth opportunities, now that the Reagan Administration arms buildup has reached a plateau. Selling services instead of weapons to the military is an attractive, stable, low-risk and very long-term business.

Knowing the Product

Industry executives believe that there are virtually no limits on the scope of technical training they can sell to the military, owing to what they see as their superior knowledge of the increasingly complex weapons they make and their greater efficiency.

"Who knows the product best?" Gross asked rhetorically, and answered: "The person who invented the product. The company that designed the product."

In addition, there is the legendary inefficiency of military organizations, a subject defense executives are careful to avoid. Although the military has improved, in some cases it continues to lag years behind private industry in utilizing modern management methods and computerization. It appears that contractors will be able to train recruits at dramatically lower costs than the military.

Although the industry's role is limited so far, Gross believes that some day private contractors may provide instructors that will ride in the back seats of jets on advanced training missions.

"It is not quite there yet, but I don't see any reason why it couldn't be there," Gross said in the interview.

Just this month, Douglas won an Air Force contract to provide classroom and aircraft simulator training for Air Force pilots on the F-15 fighter, the nation's most advanced fighter. The company will use retired Air Force pilots to conduct the training, which maintains a military flavor and has the added advantage of freeing active-duty Air Force officers from the classroom.

Nonetheless, such prospects are troubling to some military officials, who worry whether military discipline and behavior will be affected by a commercial approach to training, especially in something as sensitive as in-flight combat training.

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