Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey spoke about how the RAF will change over the next two decades.
I get to stand in front of an audience of Air Chiefs and air ninjas, to talk to you about the Air and Space Force of 2040, and I’m therefore acutely aware of my own shortcomings as neither an aviator, nor a Chief. So what I thought I might do is limit myself to the space that I should occupy, which is to give you some thoughts on the policy demands that we politicians might place on the Royal Air Force over the next two decades. I think that those broadly come in five areas.
I think that those broadly come in five areas: what we need of you as a day one/night one air force, fighting a peer or near peer enemy; what we need of you to defend our interests in Space; what we need of you to understand what our adversaries are doing – both from space and in the sky; what we need of you to support quick deployment of troops and materiel; and what we need of you to build and maintain partnerships and alliances with friendly air forces around the world.
Space aside, I don’t think much of that is particularly new but I would argue that the context in which we’re asking you to deliver the rest has changed as we move out of the first fifth of the century and into the second.
The interventions to counter violent extremism of the first twenty years of this century has now given way to a new age of systemic competition. A period where air superiority has been assumed from the outset in any conflict, has given way to one where the air is a diabolically complicated and contested domain.
Air Forces have always operated on the cutting edge of technology but in this new, unforgiving, and deadly air domain, where anti access and area denial systems are increasingly sophisticated, electronic warfare is pervasive, and missile technology is rapidly accelerating, the requirement for stealth, automation and AI is particularly stark.
Which leads me to the first of our asks to the Chief of the Air Staff: Win the fight!
Our Integrated Review makes a great deal of the emergence of sub-threshold challenges and much of the discussion since has been on how we would respond to them.
Undoubtedly, the Royal Air Force will need to be able to operate – as opposed to fight – against those sub-threshold threats and I’ll come back to our policy asks on that in just a second.
But two hard and inescapable truths remain: Firstly, the threshold could be crossed and when it is, a technologically superior, multi-domain integrated, interoperable within our alliances, bad ass, warfighting air force is needed otherwise the game is up even before it’s begun.
And secondly, it’s the existence of that technological superiority, the interoperability with our allies and the mass it brings us, that forces our adversaries to operate below the threshold in the first place. If Typhoon and Lightning couldn’t eat Flankers and Fencers for breakfast our adversaries wouldn’t worry about needing to do their business in another way.
As the next two decades pass, we need to maintain that edge through FCAS and evolving our F35 fleet.
Increasingly, crewed aircraft will become the nodes around which autonomous systems fight. As A2AD systems get more sophisticated putting relatively expendable autonomous platforms towards the threat makes sense but in an ever more electronically denied battlespace, I can’t see that we can just duke it out with drones from computer screens in the home base. People will still be needed to partner with the machines.
Maintaining that edge is essential to the way that we fight but so too is it important to the way we operate.
Professionally and safely protecting the sovereignty of our airspace, and that of our allies, helps to reinforce the rules based international system. Setting a pattern of training and operating alongside our allies reduces the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation whilst demonstrating our ability to quickly operate forward against our adversaries if needed.
And re-finding our ability to disperse and operate in a more expeditionary way makes life harder for those who look at our home base and think that we’re sunk if missiles hit Lossiemouth, Coningsby and Marham.
In the last week alone, the Royal Air Force has been doing all of those things – operating with our Norwegian partners to exercise our ability to quickly move fuelling and engineering assets forward from Lossiemouth to support Typhoon operating from bases in Norway, flying Lightning from HMS Queen Elizabeth and Typhoon from RAF Akrotiri in a congested Eastern Mediterranean, and flying Typhoon, again, in defence of the airspace of NATO partners in the Black Sea.
This shouldn’t be an exceptional week of flying activity – this is the new normal for the Royal Air Force, setting a pattern of high tempo activity that is safe, professional, but robustly underlines our commitment to upholding international norms in our airspace and alongside our partners in theirs’.
Our second policy ask of Mike is to assure the UK’s access to and our interests in Space.
This weekend we sat and watched Sir Richard Branson go into space. Last year we watched SpaceX fly a manned mission to the International Space Station. Access to space is becoming ever more commonplace meaning that more ‘stuff’ will be put in space – most of it for the advancement of humankind but, inevitably, some of it won’t be.
Ensuring that the UK can put stuff into space – both in support of military missions and the wider economy – is increasingly important. So too is our ability to protect what’s up there.
And, of course, all of this gives us the leverage, at the policy level, to shape an international environment of behaviours and operating norms that deters our adversaries and lessens their appetite for engaging in deliberate disruption or denial of essential space services.
Thirdly, we’re asking Mike and his team to give us a set of sensors – from space and in the sky – that help us to see what our adversaries are doing and understand what they’re saying.
This requirement spans the full spectrum of Defence activity. Our Reaper – soon to be replaced with Protector – drones play an essential role in our effort to disrupt violent extremism and as much as we increasingly focus on systemic competition, we can’t wish away the challenge of Daesh, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates in parts of the world where the UK has a strong interest.
I’ve no doubt that these capabilities will be ever more in demand as we progress towards 2040. Indeed, I remember only too well from my own service days that you can simply cannot ever have too little ISR.
Clearly the ability to find and understand our adversaries is essential in the fight as well as well as in countering violent extremism. Indeed, I’ve heard a lot of admirals, air marshals and generals say that if you’re found, you’re dead, so whilst we’re giving lots of thought to how not to be found, we also need lots of assets to help us find the other side.
But these assets have an important role to play whilst we’re operating as well. Our adversaries try to operate below the threshold to engineer faits accompli or to threaten our strategic interests – whether that’s our nuclear deterrent or our undersea critical national infrastructure. We need to routinely fly to understand what they’re doing, where they are, and to deter them from doing it.
Fourthly, we need CAS to enable a key part of our Integrated Review proposition where we’re trading mass for responsiveness.
This means an air force that is ready to project UK hard power quickly across the globe and then to sustain that operation thereafter.
Holding combat air squadrons and army brigades at readiness is pointless, if we can’t quickly move them once the balloon goes up.
Finally, we need CAS to deliver an air force that can compete with our adversaries for influence in strategically important parts of the world and to develop the capacity of partner air forces in those regions. Some of those air forces will be peers and so that partnering is through exercising our high-end capabilities together to develop interoperability and strengthen the resilience of our alliances.
But we also need to develop the capacity of air forces that aren’t flying 5th Generation jets. And I’ve asked Mike to give some thought to how we do that. It’s an important part of extending the UK’s network of friends and allies and giving them the capacity to tackle threats like violent extremism within their own borders so that we can increasingly focus on systemic competition.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not asking very much. Over the next two decades we need an Air Force that can fight and win as part of an alliance on day one and night one of any peer on peer fight. We need an Air Force that maintains that advantage through remaining on the cutting edge of key technologies like stealth, artificial intelligence, and automation. And we need that not just in the sky, but in space too.
We need to operate the world over with our allies to set patterns and to deter those seeking to undermine the rules based international system. We need to find and understand our adversaries quicker than they can find and understand us. We need to be able to project force by the air to all corners of the globe. I think that’s a hugely exciting proposition for the brave men and women of the Royal Air Force, and I want to pay tribute to their ongoing brilliance.
After nearly two years in the Ministry of Defence I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, men and women of the Royal Air Force deployed all over the world, and I am endlessly struck by their intelligence, their professionalism and their ingenuity as they seek to find new ways of operating in an ever more complex domain. I’m certain that whilst we’re asking a lot of them, and I know that it will cause the Chief of the Air Staff and his staff all sorts of things that they’re going to need to think about, the reality is that a career in the Royal Air Force has probably never been more rewarding.
I know that what we’re asking isn’t easy. That’s why it’s important to socialise the problems, and so I can think of no better environment than today’s conference for you to unpack those to think about what they mean for the Royal Air Force, and for the Air Force’s or our allies around the world. So, having asked so much of you. I’ll leave you to discuss. Enjoy. Thanks for listening.