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More Timely Reminders of Air Power Importance, Defence Industry and Exports By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

Ahead of the two-day RAF Air Power Conference that begins tomorrow in London and which for me is immediately followed by a visit to Birmingham University to attend the ‘Chancellors Dinner’ on Thursday evening ahead of a then fast move down to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire for all three days of the Royal International Air Tattoo, not surprisingly ‘Commentary’ will not appear again until Monday July 17th.

The next five days will be all about air power in all its many contexts – past, present and future. Over the years there have been very many fine descriptions of air power and that signify and constantly remind of its importance. We all have our particularly favourites and one of mine is “Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence” words said by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on the 14th March 1933.

Yet another are Viscount Trenchard’s fine words when he describes “the development of air power in its broadest sense, and including the development of all means of combating missiles that travel through the air, whether fired or dropped, is the first essential to our survival in war”.

“Offense is the essence of air power” said USAAF General ‘Hap’ Arnold. Wise words just as were other words used when he said that “a modern, autonomous and thoroughly trained Air Force in being and at all times will not alone be sufficient, but without it there can be no national security”. Words such as these can hardly be bettered.

Air Power comes in many different and important streams and definitions and I have often used the words ‘there is no use fighting an enemy that you cannot see’ as being my entry point in respect of the support that I provide in regard of ISTAR (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) and will continue to so do. Ignore investment in ISTAR and you might as well throw in the towel in respect of modern warfare.

It was of course Winston Churchill who reminded us that “For good or for ill, air mastery is today the supreme expression of military power and fleets and armies, however vital and important, must accept a subordinate rank”. Dated or not, we can I believe all agree the vital importance of Air Power and this is why events such as the Air Power Conference and RIAT are so vitally important and serve as timely reminders of what our Air Force is and what it continues to do one year short of its 100th anniversary.

This year’s Air Power Conference will, by the way, reflect on the growing value of partnerships and the vital role that these play particularly in the whole force concept and wider aspects of defence.

“Fly Hard, Fly well, Fly safe” said former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Richard Johns on the 24th July 1998 at the Royal International Air Tattoo that year. Safety is of course paramount at an event such as RIAT and the organisers once gain have safety and security as their number one priority. The event will also be the main European celebration point for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United States Air Force. I wish the organisers and all those attending well and remembering as I do that the RIAT site team motto used to be (and probably still is) ‘Improvise, Adapt, Overcome’ whether those attending are doing so for business networking, formulation of thoughts and ideas or just for chewing the cud with friends and business colleagues, be assured that RIAT 2017 will yet again be another great event.

Exports of air power related equipment from the UK to those who have long been our allies in the Gulf Region play a very important role in respect of maintaining jobs, particularly important engineering skills, here in the UK just as they also do for the wider economy.

Yesterday, the High Court (Lord Justice Burnett and Mr. Justice Haddon-Cave sitting)  dismissed  claims made by the ‘Campaign Against Arms Trade’ that the UK Government had acted unlawfully by failing to suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. This very important ruling made against what had been a controversial legal challenge intended to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia, is extremely welcome.

The UK is plays a very important role in defence exports and our defence industry is hugely important in respect of employment and other benefits to the economy. On the point of law and in dismissing the claim, their Lordships said that “their decision came having studied both publicly available information and secret material supplied by the Ministry of Defence which they viewed in closed sessions, adding this was “wider and qualitatively more sophisticated” than the claimant’s information.

The senior judges concluded that the Secretary of State was “rationally entitled to conclude” that the (Saudi led) Coalition was not deliberately targeting civilians, that Saudi Arabia was respecting humanitarian law and was in “constructive dialogue with the UK about its processes and incidents of concern” and [that] there was no “real risk” that there might be “serious violations” of International Humanitarian Law”. With active Eurofighter Typhoon sales campaigns in the Gulf Region along with those in Finland, Belgium being led by BAE Systems, I note with interest that my colleagues at Capital Alpha Partners based in Washington DC make mention in an excellent report overnight that Sweden had announced that it will not participate in a Belgian fighter competition.

Separately and as had already been widely publicised last week, they mention that Austria had released a study concluding that it was more economic to retire its 15 Tranche-1 Eurofighters and the Saab 1050E subsonic aircraft it has, and to consider buying a new fleet of 18 supersonic military jets.


Capital Alpha’s Byron Callan also reminds that Switzerland released a study in June on its future air defense needs as well. Although not surprisingly aircraft procurement quantity requirements here are relatively small, Capital Alpha point out that “these events point to some broader implications that investors could consider regarding future combat aircraft and air defense demand”.


For the record, Belgium intends to replace its fleet of 54 F-16 aircraft and acquire 34 new combat aircraft in a likely 2018 competition decision. Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft are to me the two most important aircraft now likely to feature in the final competition choice. While it is true that Belgium was one of the four Northern European countries (the others being Denmark, Netherlands and Norway) that in 1975 acquired Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft as part of what Capital Alpha remind was termed the “deal of the century” in 1975, Belgium is the only country that has not yet reached a decision – the others having all selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 JSF as being replacement of choice for the existing F-16 fleets. It is however not beyond the bounds of possibility that Belgium could take a different view.


It is difficult enough for me to keep abreast of export campaigns that involve the UK so in In respect of the published Austrian study and which I feel obliged to have some available comment to hand I can do no better than repeat the Capital Alpha view from Byron Callan below and thank them for their very interesting output:


“The conclusion is intriguing because the Eurofighters still have many years of operational life left. However, the Tranche-1 version is an air-defense only variant, and the report notes that there are 141 Tranche-1 variants: 50 are held by the UK, 32 by Germany, 28 by Italy, 16 by Spain and 15 by Austria. Future concerns for Austria were: 1) high operating costs, 2) the probability of different standards for other Tranche 1 types when they are upgraded”.


Capital Alpha also suggest that “The Saab Gripen may be a most logical choice for Austria which is also a neutral country and requires a supersonic combat aircraft. A portion of the Saab 1050E fleet is used for training, and given the age of this fleet, which is due to be replaced beginning in 2020, the outcome of the U.S. T-X trainer competition also bears consideration. Austria [currently] has 18 1050Es, but a portion are also used for national air defense”.


In regard of Switzerland Capital Alpha remind that at “the beginning of June, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Defense, Population Protection and Sport VBS released a study titled “Air Defense of the Future: Report of the Expert Group New Combat Aircraft” on options to modernize the country’s air force and air defense units. The report considered air defense in total—not just as separate combat aircraft and surface-to-air units and the four options laid out are for a mix of either all new aircraft to replace the existing F-5s and F/A-18s fleets> the cheapest option was considered to be acquiring 20 new aircraft combined with undertaking a mid-life extension on the Boeing F/A-18s and that would potentially add 1,000 hours to the lives of the airframes. The current air defense system is short-range and consists of BAE Systems’ Rapier and Raytheon Stinger missiles, plus air defense cannons”.

CHW (London – 11th July 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





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