Newspaper headlines in the Daily Telegraph for today August 31st together with separate interviews on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and Sky News inform us that the Chief of the Air Staff says that the Royal Air Force is ready to launch fresh IS strikes in Afghanistan and that a new offensive may be required. The Daily Telegraph quotes Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston saying “Ultimately what this boils down to is that we’ve got to be able to play a global role in the global coalition to defeat Daesh, whether it’s strike, or whether it’s moving troops or equipment into a particular country at scale and at speed” adding “if there is an opportunity for us to contribute I am in no doubt that that we will be ready to – that will be anywhere where violent extremism raises its head, and is a direct or indirect threat to the UK or our allies”.
This is all well and good and it is clear from what was said and no doubt, with a large amount of pre-planning within Defence Headquarters and Cabinet Office, suggest that the above remarks from CAS had not only been fully cleared but requested are, if you like, to be seen as a political as opposed to military statement of possible UK intentions. Just as I commended the approach in regard to agreeing air attacks of Daesh/IS in Syria back in December 2015, I commend the possibility of future action being taken against the same enemy by the UK and its allies.
But, air attacks on Afghanistan are a very different proposition to that of using the RAF base in Akrotiri. Afghanistan is land locked and a much further distance to travel even if RAF aircraft are based for instance, in the Gulf Region. The logistics is much more difficult to comprehend and with large parts of Afghanistan being bordered by Iran which would of necessity not allow western military aircraft to fly over its territory and also by Pakistan, which would require diplomatic effort in order to garner required clearances, big questions remain to be answered.
And then there is the question of hardware capability. CAS said that he was in discussions with his international counterparts about long-term plans to base more RAF units overseas, including those operating ‘Protector’ which will replace the existing ‘Reaper’ unmanned aerial capability in 2024.
That is all well and good but although F-35 can operate from our aircraft carriers, as far as I am aware, we currently have no support infrastructure set up anywhere near Afghanistan that would allow use of this capability. That means, leaving aside the potential use of ‘Reaper’ that from a UK standpoint it would be Typhoon FGR4 capability that would I assume be required to be used. Nothing wrong in that – great capability and will soon have radar enhancement but why is it that Defence Headquarters are so reticent to talk about mid-life update – a very necessary requirement if we are to ensure Typhoon capability really is fit for purpose for the next twenty years?
In a separate statement last night Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab signed a joint statement issued by the US led coalition vowing “to drawer on all elements of national power – military, intelligence, diplomatic economic and law enforcement “, in order to crush the IS terrorist group. Once again, I am bound to say that such an intention, whilst welcome, is far easier to say and to sign up to than it probably is to conduct.
We are of course continuing to play our part in the allied campaign against Daesh/IS in Syria and Iraq and rightly so. But we must stop kidding ourselves that even if the House of Commons was to support an air campaign against Daesh/IS in Afghanistan that we have sufficient capability and capacity to operate in another large area such as Afghanistan.
Army Regiments undoubtedly did an excellent job in Afghanistan over the past fortnight in getting as many UK citizens and those in Afghanistan entitled to come to the UK out. Credit where credit is due. The RAF was as always, exemplary and the fleet of Boeing C-17 Globemaster, Airbus RAF Voyager and A400M’s together with, for the highly specialist role of desert extraction, the C-130J performed superbly. We could not have asked for more of our people or capability. And yet, the powers that be in Defence Headquarters are still to be heard saying that they are not prepared to change their minds on scrapping C-130J capability by 2023. Given that A400M is still not cleared for all of the roles for which it was bought, how ridiculous is that?
Having already withdrawn our fleet of four Raytheon RAF Sentinel airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft together with all remaining Sentry E-3D AWACS capability – the former without intended replacement and the latter two to three years ahead of potential replacement and elsewhere, paired RAF capability and capacity to the bone I am at something of a loss when I hear messages that present a notion to the public that we can do almost anything we want with relative ease. We can’t and I believe it is lying to the public if we pretend otherwise,
My final word on this subject relates to the question of why on earth did the powers that be – presumably with the Chief of the Air Staff’s blessing, allow the operation at Kabul Airport to be conducted without, as far as I am aware, a single member of the RAF Regiment on site. The RAF Regiment is there to conduct Force Protection and it would have been inconceivable to me not to have had Kabul Airport protected by the RAF Regiment.
I can only imagine that this has more to do with the Chief of Defence Staff and Secretary of State for Defence who are Army men through and through deciding that there was in the evacuation of Afghanistan presented an opportunity for the Army to demonstrate a purpose of their existence. An unkind remark perhaps but one that may well be true. No criticism of the mission intended though, the Army played their part very well but I fear that once again, those who have spent their lives training for such an event in the RAF Regiment will, along with the additional pressures placed on them in the Integrated Review will feel disheartened and demotivated at being passed over for this crucial mission by those in Defence Headquarters.
The bottom line for me is that having paired UK defence capacity and capability to the bone, we should take great care in alluding to the public that we still have the ability to conduct defence in a manner that we could ten or twenty years ago. For all the new technology and new requirements called for in relation to defence, when it comes to fighting traditional warfare and playing the role that we need to do with our allies, we are but a shadow of our former selves.
CHW (London – 31st August 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,