The Royal Air Force is 103 this year, and when I speak to our people, I like to remind them that back in 1918 the Royal Air Force was the 20th century’s original tech start-up company. Our people were innovators and disrupters who had discovered this amazing new technology, understood its limitless potential, and had to rebel against the organisations they were part of at that time – the British Army and the Royal Navy – to properly harness that technology. Well that innovative and disruptive gene is still in our Royal Air Force DNA, and dare I say it to our international audience, is in all of your air and space forces’ DNA too.
In this age of Joint All Domain Command and Control, multi-domain and multi-national integration, I also like to remind our people that back in 1918, we were the pioneers of that too. I don’t need to remind this audience that Air and space power has always been the decisive enabler of operations in the land and maritime environments, and of course can deliver decisive effect in itself. So, whilst the technology has moved on from flashlights and pigeons, our intuitive understanding of multi-domain integration, of the importance of seamless information sharing at the right time to the decision-maker irrespective of their nationality, service or specialization; well that too is in our DNA, intuitively what we understand from the moment we first put on this uniform.
So a very warm welcome to the 2021 Global Air Chiefs Conference. I am delighted at the truly global audience we have today, and the tremendous range and depth of presentations and participation. Thank you to all of you taking part, in whatever guise, and for helping make this gathering of air and space power leaders one of the most informative and enlightening of its kind in the world.
I’m sure most of you will have studied with interest the significant announcements made in the United Kingdom over the last six months around security and defence, Britain’s place in the world, the role of the UK Armed Forces, and of course the role of air and space power in all that.
Last November, our Prime Minister announced a £24.1Bn/$33Bn increase in Defence funding over the next four years, and that was followed in March with the publication of the Integrated Review, Defence Command Paper and Defence and Security Industrial Strategy.
Across all of those announcements, I would offer three important themes.
Firstly, the uncertain, complex and dynamic international context, with fast-evolving threats becoming ever more sophisticated and proliferating widely:
Secondly, in this era of chronic instability, a UK prepared and able to act on the world stage as a problem-solving, burden-sharing nation, amplifying our influence through deeper relationships and partnerships.
And thirdly, that this Government could not be clearer in its view of the integral role of the UK Armed Forces in UK national power.
As those themes played out over the last year, the Royal Air Force position was very clear: air and space power gives our Government the choice and ability to act and signal strategically on a global stage, at range, at speed, precisely, with minimal political risk and maximum political choice.
And day after day, our people ram home that message by demonstrating the utility of air and space power, from protecting our skies and patrolling our seas, to bolstering our NATO allies, monitoring threats to our critical interests in space, on operations in Mali or taking the fight to Da’esh in their sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq.
We would I think all recognise an increasingly unstable world of persistent challenge and competition, whether that is Chinese expansionism or Russia’s reckless adventurism in Eastern Europe or committing murder on the streets of the UK.
Across all our respective areas, the strategic context is increasingly complex, and dynamic, and the pace of change is extraordinary, supercharged by leaps in technology. If we fail to respond, and respond at pace, we will cede the advantage to our adversaries. My good friend General CQ Brown, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, is very clear about that when he challenges the USAF to ‘ Accelerate change or lose’ because he says ‘If we don’t change, if we fail to adapt, we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades.’
We must be ready to face the threats of the future because we can no longer assume unchallenged access to the Air and Space Domains. The threats we face are increasingly sophisticated, with new combat aircraft, missiles and stealth technology challenging our air superiority. Space is now a contested domain. So we have to radically overhaul how we are organised, our training, our bases and the aircraft and equipment we operate.
To achieve that, I have clear orders from my Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff to build the next generation Royal Air Force that is fit and ready for the future. We will have to transform many areas of what we do, to overhaul our culture, to drive forward cutting-edge equipment programmes, and to make tough calls to retire equipment that has increasingly limited utility in a modern battlespace. None of this is easy, but as I said a moment ago as aviators and guardians, technological innovation is in our DNA, likewise multi-domain and multi-national integration.
Our adversaries exploit our seams and they exploit our legal, moral and ethical thresholds of response. That is why our focus on multi-domain and multi-national integration is so important. Likewise competing, and strategic signalling, below the threshold of conflict.
In that regard, I can’t think of a better example than the Carrier Strike Group that is now on its way to SE Asia and the Pacific. The UK is one of the most globally interconnected countries in the world, so we believe strongly that an open and resilient international order is the best way to ensure our collective prosperity and our security. The Carrier Strike Group is truly multi domain, and I include cyber and space in that, and truly multinational. Together with our allies, it will demonstrate our collective ability to project global influence. It will bring to life the deeper UK focus on the Indo-Pacific, a region the Integrated Review identified as critical to our economy, our security, and our global ambition to support that open and resilient international order.
At the Strike Group’s heart of course is our ability to operate 5th generation combat aircraft from the sea. The F35 Lightning is a phenomenal warfighting machine from land or sea, and this year 617 Sqn and VMFA-211 from the US Marine Corps are demonstrating that enormous utility from HMS Queen Elizabeth.
To operate and fight together we need to connect together. I know from speaking to my fellow air and space leaders that it is one of the most important technological challenges we all share. We’ve been working on this in our Rapid Capabilities Office and I can announce today that we are now at the point where our combat cloud called NEXUS can begin to be introduced operationally. It is flexible, secure, proven and we have developed it in-house at a fraction of the cost of comparators. It is that innovative DNA I was talking about earlier.
In one recent evaluation, we hand carried the system onboard one of our Voyager aircraft. Once airborne, laptops and tablets were configured to show a real-time Common Operating Picture constructed from data ingested into a ground-based NEXUS node from a variety of information feeds. This was a functioning C2 network configured at 25,000 feet in just 15 minutes; the utility and adaptability applies equally to a Rib, an armoured fighting vehicle, a warship, or a Command Post.
This is the combat cloud we talk about, brought to life: data from every sensor, on any platform in the operating space; processed in real time at the edge into useful information; flagged to any user with a need for that information; accessed remotely and fused with what is already known to give situational awareness at any level; and enabling better decisions than our adversaries, executed at the speed of light.
I suspect that autonomy is another great technological challenge we all share, because with swarming drones and uncrewed combat aircraft, we are on the threshold of a change in air warfare as profound as the advent of the jet age.
Our drone test squadron, 216 Squadron, has proved beyond doubt the disruptive and innovative utility of swarming drones under our ALVINA programme. Working with our Defence science laboratory and specialist industry partners, I can say that we have exercised swarms of over 20 ultra-low cost drones operating together against threat systems to brilliant effect. We have been focused on confusing and overwhelming adversary air defences but we are already contemplating new disruptive missions, that I will leave to your imagination.
That success, in little over a year, points to the operational utility of swarming drones. I aim to declare it operational in an equally short period of time, with more than one squadron, such is its impact; and we will spirally develop it year by year, moving swiftly where the technology allows and the threat invites.
Our swarming drone squadrons will be part of that mix of piloted, remotely piloted and autonomous platforms that come together as the Future Combat Air System. As part of this year’s Review, the UK Government announced a £2Bn investment over the next four years and in partnership with international allies like Italy and Sweden we are taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones, and mixed formations of uncrewed combat aircraft as well as next-generation piloted aircraft like Tempest. We’re also exploring exciting wider international partnerships, such as with Japan. The vision is futuristic and ambitious, and we are already on the path to turning it into a reality.
Over the next 4 years, that £2Bn will be invested in driving transformation across the enterprise, embedding the crucial cutting-edge tools, practises and digital infrastructure needed to deliver a next generation system with our international partners. We will also focus research and development spending on ground-breaking technology including AI, autonomy, software and laser weapons. Our investment is a massive vote of confidence in our world-class aerospace industry and will create thousands of new jobs at the cutting edge of technology. That will include 2,500 industry apprenticeships across all parts of the UK over the next five years as we recruit the best young talent for a ‘Generation Tempest’ workforce.
As air and space professionals, as aviators and guardians, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of multi-domain integration, of joint all domain C2, of the importance of seamless information sharing at the right time to the decision-maker irrespective of their nationality, service or specialization. We also understand the importance of training together and this is yet another area where technology is turning our world on its head.
I do not exaggerate when I say that I can see a future where almost all training, force generation, and mission planning and rehearsal is done in a synthetic environment, preserving our real world activity for live operations or strategic signalling.
I am determined that the Royal Air Force will be at the vanguard of this, building a linked network of advanced flight and mission simulators at our air and naval bases and barracks, with highly classified, ultra-realistic synthetic environments. Our new Gladiator distributed simulation system will be at Initial Operating Capability by the end of this year. Our initial focus has been on training for the Typhoon force, but I am delighted to confirm today my intention to invest £40M over this period to add platforms such as Wedgetail; MQ9B Protector; our Guardian air defence control system and to look to include the Royal Navy’s Type 45 air defence destroyers and other maritime, space or land synthetic environments. We will join our simulation to NEXUS, the combat cloud I spoke about earlier, and experiment how artificial intelligence can hone our warfighting edge, both in live and training environments.
Alongside digital connectivity, synthetic training environments will be the key foundations of multi-domain and multi-national integration, giving our people the skills and experience to think and act across all domains. In that regard, we have a key role as air and space leaders to make sure that space has the prominence it requires in our doctrine, our TTPs and in our collective training, real and synthetic.
I know that many of my fellow air and space chiefs have been on similar journeys in recent years, recognising that Space services have critical utility for land, maritime, air and cyber operations, and so must be a truly integrated domain across Defence; but that the intuitive understanding, the global perspective, and the skills and expertise in our people rests largely in our air forces. It is that innovative aviator gene again, that we now share with our space guardians, and our intuitive understanding of multi-domain integration.
In the UK that means that we look to our Strategic Command under General Sir Patrick Sanders as the global integrator, setting the strategic requirement for space services such as communications, ISR and PNT; in lock step with Strategic Command, the Royal Air Force is responsible for the command and control of space operations, developing space capability and generating a space workforce initially from across the RAF, but as fast as we can building those skills in the Royal Navy, Army, Civil Service and industry partners.
To meet that responsibility to the Ministry of Defence and our Government, I was delighted to establish the UK Space Command on the first of April this year, and I will be even more pleased next week when we open the new Space Command headquarters at RAF High Wycombe. We have already transitioned our Space units, including RAF Fylingdales and the Space Operations Centre to Space Command. It could not come soon enough because the space industrial revolution is gathering extraordinary pace and as leaders in the security and defence of our nations, we air and space chiefs have work to do.
I have spoken at length to many in this audience about the criticality of the Space Domain to national security and to the functioning of our society, as well as its vital contribution to operations in all domains. But that critical reliance is also a vulnerability and we see countries like China and Russia seeking to exploit that vulnerability by developing and testing systems designed to interfere with or even destroy satellites and space systems.
To protect and defend our interests in Space, we must continue to build our understanding of this increasingly contested, congested and competed domain. At the same time, our diplomats are working closely with international allies through the United Nations to establish norms for responsible and safe behaviours in Space.
The UK Integrated Review allocated an extra £1.4Bn or $2Bn in defence Space funding over the next ten years on top of the $7Bn we are spending on our Skynet communications programme. As a priority, we will establish a space cloud to harvest the terabytes of Space-derived data across a truly borderless domain; whilst establishing space-based ISR programme to deliver a sovereign multi-spectral ISR constellation.
The UK’s thriving Space industry is at the heart of this and we have adopted a truly integrated approach across Space Command, industry, our science labs and academia to maximise innovation and rapid capability development. UK Space Command has already embedded UK Space Agency personnel alongside commercial partners within the Space Operations Centre, and through the establishment of a Commercial Integration Cell, we offer a vital link to enhance Space Domain Awareness for all space users as we track, catalogue and monitor potential Space collisions 24/7 365.
Doctrinally, I think almost all of us now recognise Space as an operational domain in its own right. It underpins almost every aspect of life in the information Age, from food on our shelves to fuel in our tanks to the critical enabling of operations across all domains. That means we must put space at the forefront of future thinking in our Armed Forces and across our Governments’ policy making.
But up there too, as a rapidly growing priority, is environmental sustainability. I know you’re probably thinking it’s crazy to hear an air and space chief talking about this, however the imperative is clear: our politicians will increasingly demand it of us, because our public demands it of us. And the young people in the Royal Air Force today demand it of the leadership team and me, that we should be taking a lead in this.
Climate change is a transnational challenge that threatens global resilience and our shared security and prosperity. Significant action to decarbonise the global economy is required urgently to prevent climate change from accelerating rapidly and possibly irreversibly. We know that collectively our armed forces are responsible for a high level of our respective Governments’ emissions and, within that, Air and Space activity represents a significant proportion.
In the UK, current government legislation requires all greenhouse gas emissions to be net-zero by 2050, but I have set the RAF the challenge of net-zero by 2040, because everything I see and hear tells me that 2050 date will come forward.
The way we power our aircraft, the way we power our bases, the way we talk to our supply chain, to our industrial suppliers about their carbon and sustainable practices, are all going to be things that we are going to have to tackle. It will take decades and we need to start now.
I am conscious this is not something the Royal Air Force can achieve in isolation and my sense is that we could take this journey together as air and space forces around the globe, drawing on the power of our collective resources to address this pressing challenge. I have written to my fellow air and space chiefs inviting them to come together and explore the opportunities to collaborate on a global basis, sharing ideas and perhaps agreeing a shared intent.
Much of this will be done on the back of what the commercial aviation sector is doing, and the UK has taken a world leading position in that regard. I sit on the JetZero Council which brings together leaders from across UK aerospace and aviation under the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A large part of this is about commercialising sustainable aviation fuel production and making sure that it’s cost-effective and available for civil aviation, because our RAF platforms are already able to operate on 50:50 blend today, and we would if an assured supply was there.
I have also initiated activity to get our platforms 100% synthetic aviation fuel ready, and I am determined we will have our first zero emission aircraft operational by the end of this decade, which fittingly will be our youth air experience aircraft, for air cadets, university cadets and elementary flying training. The Rapid Capabilities Office is leading our synthetic fuel projects, including exciting dvances in waste-to-fuel technology through to electrofuels. These new approaches are environmentally-friendly and sustainable; they are also secure in their supply and the chemically purer fuel we are producing indicates cleaner engines that results in lower maintenance, longer equipment life, and lower noise, heat and visual signatures such as contrails.
I look forward to working on this challenge as Global Air and Space Chiefs, and hopefully coming together in the Autumn to make a start. It will not be easy, but I don’t see it as discretionary. And it’s something that I am telling our next generation of leaders to get their heads around, because it will largely fall to them to deliver.
The Royal Air Force is rightly proud of its reputation for excellence and our history of defending the United Kingdom and our allies. Whilst our aircraft, equipment and technology are essential to what we do it is the enduring quality and talent of our people that give the Royal Air Force its decisive edge. That is as true today and into the future as it has ever been; so there can be no higher priority than ensuring we can continue to attract, recruit and sustain the highly skilled and diverse workforce we need from across every part of the UK population. Not only is this the right thing to do at a personal level, our future success as an Air Force depends on it.
We will continue to increase the flexibility our people have on a daily basis through flexible employment and throughout their careers, all on terms and conditions of service that reflect a modern, people-focused organisation, for regulars and reserves. I was delighted to hear last month that the RAF had won the Rising Stars Company of the Year award in recognition of what we have done to actively support and develop our female talent pipeline, and just last week we were recognised in the National Apprenticeship Awards. Next week we are announcing a significant change to our appearance policy and there will be more to follow for all our people.
We have a highly talented and motivated workforce which would be the envy of any organisation, but our historic workforce structures limit our ability to unleash that full potential. So I can announce today that we are going to transform the model of career branches and trades – that dates back to the 1950s – and ensure the next generation Royal Air Force is fit to face the challenges of the future, with eleven new professions that replace the 68 branches and trades today.
And all these changes are already taking effect. Last year, I am proud to say that one in five of our recruits were women and one in ten were from UK ethnic minorities. These are record-breaking figures for the RAF, and it did stress the organisation, but I want us to do even better, doubling by 2030 to 40% recruiting of women and 20% from ethnic minorities. We talk about space, Tempest, autonomous platforms and all of the remarkable things the Royal Air Force has set out to do, but this change to our workforce is without doubt amongst the most profound.
I started this morning talking about that innovative and disruptive gene that is in our aviator DNA. Well that innovative gene is needed now more than ever because the rate of technological change is extraordinary, supercharged by leaps in digital and quantum technology. That is the challenge of the age for us as air and space leaders, but it is also to our advantage because at our heart we are technically skilled forces, and our brilliant people have the talent and skills needed to succeed once we, the leaders, set the conditions for success. Our ability to think differently, challenge the status quo and innovate is fundamental to success. It is how we think in the ambiguous data-rich and complex future operating environment; It is our intuitive understanding of multi-domain and multi-national integration and the importance of seamless information sharing at the right time to the decision-maker irrespective of their nationality, service or specialization.
So, thank you for your attention this morning. We have an excellent line-up of speakers and I’m delighted so many of you have joined the Global Air Chiefs Conference today from air and space forces around the world. Thank you, all of you, for what you do to protect our collective sovereignty, prosperity and security into the future, and above all, ensure the future defence of our skies and space.