24 Mar 22. Sadly, as I had anticipated in an address I gave to D-Group last week, yesterday’s ‘Spring Statement’ from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was not a good one for defence – in fact, defence was not even mentioned once by the Chancellor!
Talk about shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, but one positive outcome to emerge separately yesterday was that at long last, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee woke up to its wider responsibilities announcing the first of two inquiries into aviation procurement, which will cover the RAF and the Naval and Army Air Arms, as well as both rotary and fixed wing assets.
The first inquiry, we are informed, will focus on the strategic context, existing contracts and capabilities, and the impact of planned reductions and reasoning behind planned reductions to the existing fleet, including the early retirement of Combat air, with the early retirement of Tranche 1 Typhoons and the apparent scaling-back of commitments to purchase additional F35-B fighter aircraft, fleet mobility, with regard to the early retirement of the C-130J Hercules, Sentry E-3D Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft and the dangerous decision to reduce the number of E–7A Wedgetail aircraft capability from 5 to 3 and I hope, gap in any form of UK specific AWACS capability before these already delayed aircraft might enter service in 2024/5 along with removal of the RAF Puma rotary air capability ahead of its planned replacement and of older Chinook rotary capability from service and finally, address capacity issues relating to rotary and fixed wing Military Flying Training issues.
I really do welcome that almost five years since I had, as a then advisor to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, requested to the former HCDC chair, Dr. Julian Lewis, that these issues be investigate at as a matter of urgency along with other dangers in respect of planned future Air Capability that had emerged within SDSR 2015, an inquiry is finally to look at the various aspects of air power capacity and capability and I am of course, ready to provide evidence to the Committee if requested to so do.
A second, follow-on inquiry will examine proposals for future capabilities, including the Future Combat Air System and the proposed new medium-lift helicopter replacement for Puma. This second report will, I understand consider whether the MoD has the requisite structures and expertise to robustly manage these significant investment programmes, and how it should seek to support a sustainable and thriving domestic aviation sector.
What the Committee has not specifically said that it will look at is whether overall Royal Air Force fixed wing and rotary capability lacks capacity. This includes the regrettable decision to prematurely retire the exceptional Raytheon Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR) fixed wing capability which was deployed in Operation Herrick in 2008 and had subsequently been deployed in Op Shader, Op Telic and in every other conflict engagement that RAF aircraft have been deployed and which for the record, flew circa 32,300 hours and conducted approximately 4,870 sorties during the short 14 years that it was in operational service with the Royal Air Force.
Along with the decision to slash and burn remaining Royal Air Force C130J Hercules capability – no doubt because the Treasury know well that these aircraft can be easily resold to military air forces around the world that are desperate to acquire them and prepared to pay a good price for well cared for capability such as the fleet of C-130J are considered to be, the premature withdrawal of Sentinel R1 Astor capability and which I know full well from experience would, had it not already been withdrawn in order to save costs, would have been in full use assisting in the overall ISTAR related role around Ukraine.
Neither has there been any suggestion that the Committee will look at the shortage of Royal Navy medium lift rotary capability and that the RN is crying out for additional Merlin AW101 helicopters or indeed, that having handed over all of its fleet of Merlin’s to the Royal Navy following decisions made in SDSR 2015 and the withdrawal of Sea King rotary capability, the RAF today has no specific medium lift rotary capability at all.
That the Royal Air Force has probably never been weaker in respect of capability and capacity to do what is required is certainly true of both military fast jet capability and the crucial ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) roles is without doubt.
Yes, it is true that Typhoon and F-35 fast jet capability plays a larger role in gathering of and translating of information than predecessor aircraft and that we have Reaper UAV and soon, its Protector replacement capability in order to carry out certain elements of the ISTAR role. Thankfully too, we do also have Shadow R1 tactical C4ISTAR operated by 14 Squadron used for specific specialist airborne missions and that is today, given the intense shortfall in UK ISTAR capability, absolutely crucial.
Sentinel was however, a very crucial element and as Wing Commander ‘Dutch’ Holland said on V (AC) Squadron dispersal and sentinel withdrawal” It has been an absolute privilege to have commanded V (AC) Squadron and to have [with Sentinel R1 Astor] delivered exceptional results on multiple operations across the globe”.
Air Power, in the form of ISTAR capability, is key not only to our national security but to our ability to deploy our armed forces internationally and to conduct our NATO commitments. Once again, through decisions made in SDSR 201, SDSR 2015 and more recently, the Integrated Review process, we have placed affordability ahead of capability need and this time, we have done so at a dangerous cost to the overall security of our nation.
As to the overall shortage of RAF fast jet capability in the form of the need for more Typhoon and F-35 jets and of which I have previously written on too many times, what more can I say.
I doubt that anything the Committee says will lead to change but at least it brings it before the public and hopefully shames those who were in the immediate aftermath of the crass decisions made in the previous two Defence Reviews and that played a part in the shabby outcomes of the Integrated Review process to shame.
CHW (London – 24th March 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785