While the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT) have performed a great many overseas tours in the past the latest that included near 30 individual flying displays by the Red Arrows in no fewer than 15 different locations spread across the Asia/Pacific region is probably the largest and most important that they have ever done.
From New Delhi, India to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and then on to the important Zhuhai Airshow (Airshow China 2016) were the Red Arrows performed on all seven days of the show, this was followed with visits and displays to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai, Muscat, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi before the team made a welcome return visit to Kuwait. Excepting for the odd piece of bad weather that caused delay, the exercise has gone absolutely according to plan and I know from other comments received that it been much appreciated by Governments of the many countries involved and also by the many thousands of Red Arrows enthusiasts that have been able to watch the displays.
As part of Exercise Eastern Venture which also saw Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft deploy in Malaysia and Singapore for training exercises as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements between the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand the operation was also meant to be a clear demonstration that the UK is a globally-engaged player with global power, reinforcing its relationships with partners whilst at the same time promoting the UK prosperity agenda. The Typhoon aircraft also participated in a number of exercises in Japan and the Republic of Korea before returning back to the UK.
Supported by over 100 engineers and technicians including private sector involvement, RAF Voyager Air-To-Air Refueling aircraft flew no less than 70,000 miles delivering 200,000 kg’s of fuel for the RAF Typhoon military jets together with carrying 330 personnel and in ferrying 12 tonnes of freight between 13 country destinations. RAF C-17 Globemaster carrier 240 tonnes of freight between the UK to Malaysia, South Korea and back to the UK, again in support of the Typhoon aircraft, while C-130J Hercules transports moved 18 tonnes of freight in support of the RAFAT Red Arrows team. It may be worth noting that in order to get the Hawk jets from the UK to China required 42 transit flights.
The above paragraph highlights the enormity of logistics required to support an operation such as Exercise Eastern Venture and all credit goes to the Red Arrows pilots, engineers and support teams, to Air Officer Commanding 22 (Training) Group – Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Turner and Wing Commander Martin Higgins, Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team CO for all the professionalism and hard work put in to make this Asia/Pacific tour the undoubted success that it was. Equal credit goes to members of No 1 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth and whose Typhoon military jets provided some spectacular flying throughout the operation of Exercise Eastern Venture. Nor, in recognising the brilliance of Red Arrow pilots who will shortly begin training for their 53rd season, will I ignore singing the praises and virtues of the superb BAE Systems Hawk trainer aircraft capability that make all of what RAFAT attempts to do possible.
So why send the Red Arrows off to such a large number of different countries and locations and particularly to a country such as China where Britain and its allies have committed not to sell defence equipment. The answer is defence diplomacy and the hugely important role that the Red Arrows can play in fostering better relations with China and in opening new doors for improving trade. China might not be allowed to procure any defence equipment from Britain but as a fast growing and very powerful economy, China has a market in which Britain wants to increasingly play.
It isn’t just in China of course and with the Prime Minister, Theresa May in Bahrain for two days this week to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group that consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab, recent aerobatic displays given by the Red Arrows will still be fresh in the mind.
As the proposed development of Hinckley Point has demonstrated over the past few months, China remains very keen to invest and help finance planned new UK infrastructure whilst Britain is keener than ever to increase the amount of export trade it does with China in order to reduce the massive and very one sided deficit that we currently have with that country. Visiting China for the first time in the 52 year history of the Red Arrows presented an opportunity for the team to demonstrate British excellence at its best just as it also presented an opportunity for well thought out defence engagement. They could not have conducted the mission better than they did.
When it comes to projecting global influence and demonstrating soft power, the value that the Red Arrows create just cannot be questioned. Long recognised by our own politicians as being a very valuable national interest asset and not just in respect of the pleasure that the amazing RAFAT displays bring to countless millions of onlookers, but they have long been recognised by government and industry for the very important role that they play assisting to sell Britain abroad.
More recently termed the ‘prosperity agenda’ and with emphasis of this given within the National Security Strategy (NSS) – defined in this case as a need to enhance the defence engagement task in order to project and better promote the UK Global influence – the Red Arrows are undoubtedly a vital component required in the work of promoting British interests abroad.
SDSR 2015 had also identified the need for the UK to seize new opportunities, to foster and promote creation of new innovative ideas and also, a need to better promote and support the UK defence industry. Such aims are now clearly reflected as being priorities within Royal Air Force defence engagement policy.
The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team are a perfect example of what can be done to promote Britain and to further the aims of both defence engagement, prosperity agenda and innovation based policies. Developed in consultation with the FCO, UKTI and the private sector with a principle aim of establishing regional engagement priorities that aligned with MoD Defence engagement policy, the RAFAT Asia/Pacific tour had been made possible through training changes that had led to spare capacity being available in the Red Arrows’ programme.
It is nice to give praise and on this occasion I do so without reservation. Well done to all members of RAFAT and to those of No 1 Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth who took part in Exercise Eastern Venture as well.
CHW (London – 5th December 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785