Yes, it certainly was an interesting and highly unusual interview given by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston, outgoing Chief of the Royal Air Force to the Daily Telegraph Associate Editor (Defence,) Dominic Nichol and that was published in that newspaper on Saturday.
The interview itself is full of vibrancy and indeed, forward enthusiasm in relation to new technologies such as AI and the widened uses this can be put too and of what the RAF is doing using synthetic fuels and playing its part in relation to so-called climate change. It is undoubtedly a carefully written article, one in which he doesn’t appear to have been seriously challenged and one that also contains very little in the way of self-deprecation.
However, ACM Wigston did at least admit that mistakes were made in addressing the lack of diversity within the RAF, particularly in recruiting personnel from under-represented groups. He also suggested that inappropriate behaviors (a reference presumably to the Red Arrows Aerobatic Team) and toxic leadership were addressed under his leadership, with dismissals and disciplinary actions taken in order to send a clear message. That was that!
The bulk of the piece however is taken up by his emphases on the need for the RAF to modernise and adapt to evolving threats, including the utility of drones and the changing nature of air warfare. In so doing, he identifies Russia as a major threat and he emphasises the importance of being prepared for air attacks, missile attacks, and sub-surface attacks. There is also a level of pretense running through the piece and the suggestion that he is adamant that the RAF must modernise or risk being left behind in the 21st century “it’s not just about delivering today, it’s about what you are doing to build the next generation Royal Air Force; the air force of 10, 20, 30 years’ time that our successors will pick up and fight and win with”.
One may stand to be corrected, but there are many who might argue that there is not one single future RAF equipment programme that stands out that had its origins during the Wigston watch – even the brilliant ‘Team Tempest’ was planned well before the formal announcement was made in July 2018.
Whilst it is certainly true that the RAF has received new capability. Yes, during the four years that the current CAS has been in post the last Tranche 3A Typhoon was delivered in 2019, the fleet of Royal Navy/Royal Air Force F35 Joint Strike Fighters has increased considerably with six additional aircraft expected to be delivered in 2022 and seven in 2023, the fleet of nine P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft have all entered service, a fleet of 16 Protector Remotely Piloted Aircraft and that will replace the existing fleet of Reaper capability was finally ordered in 2021, the last of an order for 22 A400M Medium Lift Transport aircraft has recently been delivered, 14 new Chinook helicopters have I believe been ordered from Boeing – these to replace older aircraft that have been in service for over 40 years and, at long last, a competition has finally been opened for replacement of the ageing Puma helicopters some of which have been in service since the mid 1970’s.
Planned as it was under Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier’s watch, along with ‘Team Tempest’ I do give praise for the standing up of the UK Space Command at RAF High Wycombe during ACM Wigston’s watch although I might suggest that as yet, this important future air power aspect is underfunded. The latter point is certainly not the fault of CAS.
The list of air power capability that we have lost or that has been announced as shortly to be retired over the past four years is however considerable. Under the watch of ACM Wigston gone is the brilliant Raytheon Sentinel R1 capability without replacement, the Sentry E3-D capability that is so far without replacement until the first of what was intended to be five but is now reduced to three Boeing E-7 ‘Wedgetail’ AEW aircraft, comes into service possibly in 2025, the whole fleet of 14 remaining C-130J medium lift aircraft and soon, the remaining fleet of Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft. Numbers of Hawk T1 training aircraft have also been significantly reduced. The venerable Tucano training aircraft have also departed the fleet and been sold and replaced by a much smaller fleet of Texan T1’s. To be fair, I must also say that some of the above were based on decisions taken prior to 2018.
I will not reopen the debate on the planned increase in numbers of front line military fast jet squadrons here mainly because, new F-35 squadrons apart, I always saw this as an exercise to make us look as if we were expanding front line capability when the reality was that we were further reducing it. Add the various RAF bases that have closed such as RAF Linton-on-Ouse and RAF Scampton, rather questionable decisions made such as moving the base of the Red Arrows Aerobatic Team to the already extremely busy RAF Waddington.
As is often the case in unchallenging articles such as the one being discussed here, it is what is not included rather than what is that ‘stands out’. Yes, there is mention of the hugely embarrassing and damaging handling of diversity and inclusion issues which I will make no additional comment here.
But reading through this piece, while the word ‘training’ is mentioned only once. So, the reality is that the most important issue given to the current Chief of the Air Staff on his appointment in back 2018, that of sorting out the disaster that was perceived to be RAF pilot training and that I might add, was primarily caused because Operational Conversion Units (OCU’s) which are there to retrain pilots from one fast jet aircraft type onto another have been so seriously cut back over the past few years – partly in relation to cost and partly because of the lack of ability to retain personnel -have seriously impacted, causing severe bottlenecks within the RAF system.
While the overall training problem may not have been helped by the pushing through of specific targeted diversity and inclusion plans and which subsequently seriously backfired, they are not the cause of the problems faced in RAF pilot training. Retention of the highly qualified trainer personnel who are responsible for synthetic based and real time flying training of students has also been a serious problem as, to a much lesser extent, has been the lack of availability of Hawk T2 Trainer aircraft due to a serious technical issue. That problem and which forced the RAF to temporarily ground the aircraft, affects components contained in the Safran-manufactured Module 1 of the Rolls-Royce Adour Mk 951 fitted to Hawk T2 engine and the ongoing issue is reported to have halved the life expectancy of the engine to 1,700 hours.
So, there are some justified reasons why the training issue has not yet been fully sorted out but in a valedictory piece which allowed the Chief of the Air Staff to raise a range of important issues should he choose, to have not even mentioned training leaves much to be desired.
While it is highly unusual – having personally known at least ten former Air Staff Chiefs I have never known any that have had the pleasure of being interviewed (although I also accept some might have been invited but declined) in their final month by a large newspaper.
I will however conclude by suggesting, rightly or wrongly, that if the objectives for the future modernisation requirement of the RAF are so important to him why is it that we are only now hearing his words of wisdom? Why is it that in a recent hearing of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee which I attended personally did the Chief of the Air Staff fail to accept that the RAF was short of capability it needed? Why did he not stand up for the Royal Air Force and its people, be open and honest and with integrity say that if we want to be considered a ‘Tier One Force’ capability we must have the capability and capacity to match?
CHW (London – 30th May 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785