Britain’s Empire Test Pilots’ School

The Ministry of Defence is refusing to disclose which repressive regimes it is aiding through a secretive pilot training scheme that parliament barely even notices.

2 April 2024
Pilots practice flying a fighter jet at ETPS. (Photo: Handout / Saab)

Pilots practice flying a fighter jet at ETPS. (Photo: Handout / Saab)

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is refusing to disclose the nationalities of pilots trained through a decades-old scheme with close links to arms manufacturers. 

Over the last 80 years, the little-known Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) has trained more than 1,500 student pilots from 32 countries. Among them are likely to be some of the world’s most repressive regimes. 

The ETPS’ military students test aircraft to their limits, fine-tuning weapons systems or fitting machine guns to helicopters. 

Its aircraft include fighter jets, drones and helicopters that can be loaded with weapons and are of types used by countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel. 

While the MoD has rejected Freedom of Information requests about the nationalities of the ETPS’ students, last year a parliamentary question revealed that the school was training Turkish pilots, amid Turkey’s bombing of northern Iraq. 

The school has close relationships with weapons manufacturers and industry visits are part of the course. Former students have gone on to develop weapons systems for arms corporations such as BAE Systems​​. 

One former Royal Navy pilot and ETPS graduate went on to develop aircraft such as Typhoon and Tornado for BAE — these were jets loaded with bombs deployed by the UK in NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign in Libya. 


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Little scrutiny

Based at MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, the ETPS is an initiative that barely any MP has ever asked any questions about. There are hardly any mentions of the ETPS in the official record. 

The school used to be part of the MoD but is now operated by QinetiQ as part of a 25-year contract which came into effect in April 2003. It has a total estimated cost of £5.6bn. 

QinetiQ is a secretive military research and development company and a major government contractor. 

The UK has no qualms about training militaries belonging to repressive regimes or countries engaged in war. Britain has, for example, trained pilots from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which bombed Yemen from 2015 to 2022. 

Egypt is another highly repressive regime with which the Royal Air Force (RAF) has strengthened military ties in recent years. In 2019, British Army and RAF personnel travelled to Egypt to train with Egyptian troops and in 2021 RAF Typhoons trained with Egyptian Air Force F-16 fighters for the first time in 20 years. 

Working with Israel

In 2019, for the first time, the Israeli Air Force trained alongside its British counterparts at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. 

The UK was particularly keen to learn from Israel’s combat experience flying F-35s, a Lockheed Martin fighter jet that Israel had flown in Syria and is now flying over Gaza. 

“The UK was particularly keen to learn from Israel’s combat experience flying F-35s”

The RAF also flew with Israeli pilots in 2021 and 2022, and last year the UK quietly participated in Israel’s Independence Day, with the RAF flying Typhoons. 

More recently, the UK has been conducting surveillance flights over Israel and Gaza, for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” purposes. 

Mind-boggling profits

The ETPS was initially entirely owned by the British government before it was controversially sold cheaply in 2002. It was New Labour’s first privatisation and the MoD sold off its stake to US corporation Carlyle, which employs many former top Pentagon officials. 

When QinetiQ went to the stock exchange in 2006, senior civil servants that had shares in the company and had pushed for the MoD’s sale made “mind-boggling” profits, seeing investment returns of nearly 20,000%.  

Ten of them made more than £100m in a day. An inquiry into the sale reported that taxpayers could have gained “tens of millions”. 

QinetiQ’s single biggest shareholder, Christopher Harborne, is a donor to the Tory and Brexit parties, donating more than £6m in 2019. In 2022, he donated £1m to the Office of Boris Johnson Ltd and £1m to the Conservative Party. 

Former defence secretary Ben Wallace worked for QinetiQ as its overseas director in the security and intelligence division for two years until he was elected to parliament in 2005.

George Tenet, a former CIA chief, was a non-executive director of QinetiQ between 2006 and 2008. 


More than two dozen Saudi Typhoon pilots trained in Britain


Swarming drones

In addition to operating the ETPS, QinetiQ provides the MoD with electronic warfare and is one of its main cyber defence suppliers. The company was also part of a clandestine UK programme that developed 3D printed “suicide” drones for Ukraine. 

QinetiQ has partnered with Middle East General Enterprises to make unmanned military drones in the UAE. Another of its joint ventures, Houbara, is “dedicated to harnessing technology to develop sovereign defense capabilities and advance the vital national interests” of the UAE. 

Houbara provides the UAE military with weapons systems ranging from supersonic anti-ship missile targets to swarming drones. 

War in Ukraine and Palestine, and tension with China, have been great for business, with QinetiQ’s CEO saying late last year: “We are doing really, really well”.  

The fact that ETPS is run by QinetiQ, now a private company, means that the British government can refuse to answer freedom of information questions about the school’s costs.