Tuesday, October 13, 2009

RoKAF pilots get to fly only 131 hours

South Korean fighter pilots trained 131 hours each on average last year, according to files compiled by the parliamentary Defense Committee for this year's National Assembly audit. Between 2004 and 2006, pilots trained an average of 134 hours each, and 132 hours in 2007.

But Air Force regulations require 240 hours of flight training a year for pilots to stay in top shape. At least 180 hours of flight training a year is required for pilots to stay in satisfactory shape and 150 hours to maintain the minimum required skill level. So the average flight training hours logged last year were 19 hours short of even the minimum.

They are roughly the same as the 120 hours North Korean fighter pilots train on average. This is simply unacceptable. North Korea's Air Force is equipped with aging fighter jets flown by poorly trained pilots who are able to fly only one or two sorties in combat. On top of that, the North is suffering from a dire energy shortage. Who can accept that fighter pilots in the Republic of Korea, the world's 13th biggest economy, train about as much as pilots in one of the most badly run dictatorships on earth?

In the 1990s, South Korean fighter pilots trained 180 hours a year. Then came the Asian financial crisis followed by soaring global oil prices, which prompted an energy conservation drive that whittled down flight training hours to 130 hours a year. A lack of pilot training leads to deterioration in skill levels and to accidents. The mid-air collisions of two F5E fighter jets in November last year were attributed to pilot error. Out of nine pilot fatalities over the last 10 years, seven were caused by pilot error, including disorientation or dangerous maneuvers.

It costs W10 billion (US$1=W1,170) to train a single fighter pilot. Such valuable personnel cannot be allowed to risk their lives simply because of a lack of proper training in the name of conserving fuel.

Air forces in advanced countries do not put limits on the amount of fuel allocated for pilot training, no matter how expensive crude prices get and how bad the economy may be. In 2005, Japanese and German fighter pilots trained 150 hours, while French, Australian and Taiwanese fighter pilots trained 180 hours. British and Canadian fighter pilots trained 210 hours. In the U.S., fighter pilots train for 189 hours and bomber pilots 260 hours a year. Fighter pilots based aboard aircraft carriers train hundreds of hours each year, regardless of their rank.

Yet compared to pilots there, those in South Korea face a far more serious security threat. North Korea's land forces are almost double the size of South Korea's. The basic premise of South Korea's military strategy is to deal with that threat through superior air power. It is the responsibility of fighter pilots to protect Seoul and metropolitan area from the massive array of North Korean long-range artillery pieces arranged along the border. Their training must not be hampered by cost considerations.

It apparently costs between W300 billion to W340 billion a year to maintain around 800 fighter aircraft, and W30-50 billion in added expenses allows fighter pilots to train at least 150 hours a year. Right now, there are 461 government committees. Cutting their expenses alone would enable fighter pilots to train at least a little more than the proud airmen of North Korea.

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