So, further strong hints yesterday from the armed forces minister, James Heappey that the Integrated Review refresh may well favour the Army following his admission that it has suffered from “serial underinvestment” and needs more money.
Suggesting “recapitalisation” as being necessary following decades of underinvestment” will be very much welcomed by the Army but perhaps what I found most interesting was the admission that the Army is running low on ammunition. To that I would add, following nine years of flying combat air missions and strikes over Iraq and Syria firing a range of Paveway 1V and remaining stocks of Enhanced Paveway 11 and 111 bombs together with large numbers of Brimstone missiles, is the Royal Air Force short on complex weapons?
Rather ironically, today (January 31st) marks the 4th anniversary of the of the final RAF Panavia Tornado GR.4 combat mission against ISIL/Daesh over Syria or Northern Iraq. Starting on 10th January 2016 and as part of the Combined Joint Task Force (Operation Shader was the term used for the UK contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve), RAF Tornado GR.4 provided close air support missions and air strikes in support of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Force) operations against ISIL/Daesh strongholds in Northern Iraq and Syria.
The end of Tornado GR.4 operations coincided with a decline in the request for air support by the SDF and the baton of the RAF Op Shader role passed to the Typhoon FGR-4. That role continues but activity is greatly reduced from the peak activities operated by the Tornado GR.4 between 2016 and 2019. Following the final Tornado GR.4 close air support mission fours year ago today the eight aircraft deployed to RAF Akrotiri flew back to RAF Marham joining the remaining nine 1X (B) and 31 Squadron’s before both were stood down in March 2019, the latter ahead of anticipated reforming later this year in order to operate the General Atomics protector RG1 from 2024 and the former as a Tornado unit before moving to RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and being reformed as a Typhoon aggressor and QRA squadron on the 1st April 2019.
Today, with the arrival of three more jets late last year there are currently 29 F-35B Lightning aircraft serving in the joint Royal Air Force/Royal Navy fleet of which three are test jets maintained in the US. By the time that all aircraft ordered by the MOD in the first batch have been delivered from Lockheed Martin by the end of 2025 the UK will have 47 F-35B’s (note that one aircraft was subsequently lost in an accident at sea. Further details in relation to the earlier commitment to acquire a total number of 138 F35 aircraft is unlikely to be confirmed until 2025 although even if the original commitment is maintained, orders for these aircraft will be spread over many years ahead. In short, while numbers of envisaged F-35 aircraft for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, at 138, may or may not be considered as sufficient in respect of penultimate levels, it is increasingly clear that the MOD will need to speed up the ordering process of this crucial sixth generation capability and that is and will be the backbone of ‘Carrier Strike’ capability for the next generation.
Given that although a couple of aircraft may be retained, it is anticipated that Tranche 1 Typhoon aircraft are either no longer operational or will very soon be retired, the Royal Air Force will be left with an operational fleet of just 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3 combat jet aircraft along with the F-35 Lightning aircraft mentioned above, it is increasingly clear if not obvious internally that with Typhoon capability increasingly being stretched through increased deployment internationally in support of our Nato and other allies and this combined with already announced upgrading of radar with the European Common Radar System (ECTS) Mk 2 system and that will take more aircraft out of service whilst this vital work is undertaken, that the UK just does not have sufficient numbers of Typhoon capability. In addition, at some point and because this exceptional aircraft capability is now being used even more intensely and particularly since the premature retirement of Tornado GR4 capability, the need to consider full mid-life update including upgrading and enhancing mission and power systems sooner rather than later. As was experienced by Tornado GR4 and which was, to use the old adage, never better in terms of a capability than on its last day in service, the life of aircraft soften depends on its use and the number of missions flown.
The bottom line is that, just as Germany and Spain have done, the UK needs to increase numbers of Typhoon aircraft in its fleet. Accepting that the huge advance in technology requires less aircraft to do the same job as with second and third generation capability should not mean that a nation such as ours leaves itself so short of available capability and so vulnerable.
Having in the space of just thirty years seen withdrawal of 76 GR9 Harriers, over 30 Sea Harriers, the remaining fleet of RAF Sepecat Jaguar aircraft, over 370 Tornado F3 and GR4 variants along with Typhoon Tranche 1 capability, that the UK currently has a maximum available combat jet capability/capacity of just 146 aircraft stretches the imagination a little too far.
It would be wrong that I ignore the huge prospects that ‘Tempest’ -the next generation combat aircraft operating capability currently under development will undoubtedly provide. At the cutting edge of technology innovation and planned to deliver a large number of world firsts in respect of advanced technical capabilities this UK led, Italian and Japanese partnership is set to produce a game-changing technology. We are fortunate that BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA working with the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, MOD and other international companies and organisations is think long term and outside of the box in what will undoubtedly be fantastic capability.
But let us not forget that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has also been a wake-up call that in this increasingly uncertain world no country can afford to defend itself with insufficient air power capability and capacity.
That the Army has been under capitalised equipment and maybe also, manpower wise is not for me to dispute – but with the Royal Navy having and/or getting most of what it needs, let us not forget that wars are wone or lost in the air and that having high levels of available air power capability is crucial.
CHW (London – 31st January 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785