Having to let go of something close, doesn’t need to have a sense of loss. When the European Defence Agency (EDA) sees its home-grown Helicopter Exercise Programme, its Helicopter Tactics Course and its Helicopter Tactics Instructors Course move to the new permanent Multinational Helicopter Training Centre (MHTC) in Portugal by the end of 2022, after many successful years at EDA, it does so with a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’.
This article as well as the following interview with João Gomes Cravinho, the Defence Minister of Portugal, have first been published in EDA's 'European Defence Matters' magazine N° 19 published in June 2020
It is a basic principle underlying all training activities run by EDA: as soon as a programme reaches a sustainable level of support, maturity and output, the aim becomes to transfer it to a permanent facility hosted and managed by one of Member States involved. For the Agency’s ambition is not to become a permanent training institute but to serve as a catalyst and facilitator for collaborative training activities which later on will be taken care of by a Member State or an organisation – allowing the Agency to free resources and engage in other training projects.
The move in June 2017 of EDA’s European Air Transport Fleet training programme to the new permanent European Tactical Airlift Centre (ETAC) in Zaragoza/Spain, after six years of busy activities at EDA – 87 aircrews trained, 50 tactical instructor pilots graduate, 94 European transport aircraft involved – stands out as a shining example of this policy.
It will be followed soon by the Agency’s three multinational rotary-wing training programmes: the Helicopter Exercise Programme (HEP), the Helicopter Tactics Course (HTC) and the Helicopter Tactics Instructors Course (HTIC). Launched in 2009 and supported by 15 countries (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway as well as the United Kingdom – up till Brexit), this trio has since become one of EDA’s most dynamic and successful training activities, highly appreciated in Europe’s rotary wing community.
By the end of 2022, their new home will be Sintra/Portugal: that’s what the Agency’s Steering Board decided in August 2019 when it green-lit the setting-up of a new Multinational Helicopter Training Centre (MHTC).
A new permanent home
The objective is to make this MHTC a permanent European centre of excellence for advanced helicopter training. It will deliver administrative and training functions to serve both as a central hub for the coordination of helicopter training across Europe, but also as the provider of the next iteration of the HEP, HTC and HTIC programmes currently run by the Agency.
The centre is expected to reach initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2022, although the Covid-19 crisis impact may alter this date, and it is estimated it will operate for a period of 15 years, which can be extended to 30 years following the agreement of its contributing Member States.
The next major milestone in the preparation is the harmonisation of the MHTC Technical Agreement, expected by the beginning of 2021, and the build-up of the infrastructures in Sintra which should be finished before the IOC MHTC.
Gradual hand-over starting this summer
The move to Sintra will be gradual, starting soon – this summer with the transfer of EDA’s helicopter training centre from its traditional location, RAF airbase Linton-on-Ouse in the United Kingdom (in the process of being dismantled), to Sintra Air Force airbase which will already be operational, on a provisional basis, between mid-2020 and the end of 2022 when it will fully take over its new MHTC role. The full set of training equipment will be moved from Linton-on-Ouse to Sintra, except the helicopter simulator which is being replaced with a new one.
"An opportunity to strengthen European cooperation"
Portugal is actively preparing to host the MHTC which it considers a priority and “strategic investment”, says the country’s Minister of Defence, João Gomes Cravinho, in an exclusive interview with European Defence Matters.
How are preparations going for the transition of the current EDA helicopter programmes to Sintra in 2020 and for the creation of the MHTC in 2022?
Currently, and until 2023, EDA helicopter programmes will take place in Sintra as part of a transition process for MHTC while ensuring the continuity of all EDA helicopter training. Portugal has received the helicopter simulator formerly based in the UK and will provide support for academic and simulator courses in existing infrastructures, specially adapted for that purpose, while the MHTC project is under development. Since November, multiple site surveys have been made in Sintra to check the current infrastructures. The flight simulator hardware is already in Portugal, waiting for INZPIRE representatives to be able to travel to Portugal and start the required assembly as soon as possible. Of course, we and all the other countries involved in the Agency’s helicopter training have also been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which has required partial and full lockdowns, including in Portugal. This resulted in the cancellation of two courses, planned for May and June 2020. Nevertheless, Portugal has been actively engaged with EDA and Member States to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 in the helicopter programmes. In close coordination with Member States a contingency plan has been agreed that should allow these courses to take place in the future.
What makes Sintra the perfect site for it?
Sintra is being turned into the rotary wing hub of the Portuguese Air Force that is expected to be fully operational by 2023. We hope this will provide relevant synergies, and this is in itself proof that we believe Sintra is indeed a great location for this type of infrastructure. There are large modular spaces adapted to the needs of a structure like this. The accommodation, the courses and the simulator area will, of course, be in accordance with EDA’s requirements and will all be within easy walking distance of catering and leisure spaces. Additionally, because there is more to life than work, the air base is very close to the historic town of Sintra, to Lisbon and to the beaches of Cascais, meaning there is no lack of opportunities for leisure or physical exercise in the vicinity.
How big an effort (infrastructure, staff, budget, etc.) is this for Portugal to become the host nation of this important training activity?
The Portuguese government is committed to a responsible management of the State budget, but we are also committed to strategic investments. We see the MHTC project as an opportunity to strengthen European cooperation in addressing a key operational capability that has often been found lacking and is vital to provide support to ongoing and future CSDP missions. Once Full Operational Capability is achieved, Portugal has committed, through the Portuguese Air Force, to support not only the infrastructure exclusively dedicated to the MHTC academic and simulator courses, but also all student logistical support (lodging, meals). Regarding staff, the MHTC will have ten permanent positions, plus temporary personnel responsible for the academic and simulator courses. In principle, the Portuguese Air Force will be responsible for about 50% of these permanent posts, with full time dedicated personnel. We are currently assessing the best options for hosting our foreign partners involved in permanent posts in the MHTC. In conclusion, this is a significant effort, but we see it as a priority, as a strategic investment.
How will this influence Portugal’s own involvement in EDA’s helicopter programme where it currently participates in the Helicopter Exercise Programme (HEP) and the Helicopter Tactics Course (HTC). Any plan to join the Helicopter Tactics Instructors Course (HTIC)?
The involvement of the Portuguese Air Force in EDA’s helicopter programmes (HEP and HTC) has been very successful in developing and consolidating rotary wing operational capabilities. Portugal is currently not involved in the HTIC, but this is an interesting programme and will be considered in future discussions regarding available investment in this area.
Portugal is a very regular host of the BLADE multinational helicopter exercises, at least during the 2012-2022 period. Will you remain central and host of this exercise even beyond 2022?
We are working on it. As you know, we are the organiser of the BLADE exercise in 2021. And Portugal in fact holds the record as the host country for BLADE exercises. I believe this is the result of Portugal’s ability to organise these exercises effectively, as well as the fact that it has, in relative terms, a very flexible airspace and ideal meteorological conditions. Portugal has made clear its availability for hosting the BLADE helicopter exercises in 2024, 2027 and 2030. Now it is up to EDA and the other Member States to decide, but Portugal is very committed to continuing to invest in cooperation with its European allies and partners in this vital operational capability.