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No Holiday From History – Dangers of Reducing Air Power Capability By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







(Continuing the 25 years of ‘Commentary’ theme this morning, what follows is a repeat of UK Defence [39] – No Holiday From History’ commentary piece from October 2011 and which I had in part based on the Slessor lecture given by Air Marshal ‘Timo’ Anderson a year earlier in October 2010. Six years later, I myself had the honour of being invited by the ‘Air League’ to present the 2015 Slessor Lecture in the same House of Commons venue. Since this piece was written we have had SDSR 2015 and we await the outcomes of MDP. In terms of subsequent positives, Sentinel remains has remained an important part of ISTAR capability as it should and only now are we considering much needed Sentry E3-D replacement. Internal Search and Rescue is of course no longer a military responsibility but by the same token, Typhoon capability has been further enhanced and, until March next year, Tornado GR4 capability has endured. Sadly, despite subsequent positive outcomes, none of this can hide that many of the problems and weaknesses faced by all sections of the UK military today stem from decisions made by the Coalition Government in SDSR 2010. The content of this particular piece did at least play a role improving defence awareness).

Almost a year since SDSR 2010 was published by the Coalition Government and little over a year now since Air Marshal (Timo) Anderson presented the 2010 Slessor Lecture entitled ‘The Royal Air Force in the 21st Century’ what follows is I hope a timely reminder, reasoned by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, that in terms of defence capability and deterrence there can be no holiday from history.


I have not been alone condemning the manner in which the SDSR 2010 process was conducted or the subsequent perception that the process has condemned far too much UK defence capability to the scrapheap. Others with much greater entitlement than me have expressed similarly doubt and harsh words to condemn so many aspects of the ‘SDSR’ process as they rightly fear devastating consequences for Britain’s air and sea power capability. The warning was clear for all to see and yet, for all the concern that we have expressed, our ill-advised government has stuck firmly to the long held boots on the ground myth.


Shortly before SDSR was formally announced the Royal Air Force, Air Marshal T.M. (Timo) Anderson, gave what was perhaps the most serious warning to be heard in the lead up to SDSR announcement of the danger of playing down the role that air power plays within the overall defensive capability of the UK. The message was as simple as it was also stark – play down national air power defence capability too far and the Royal Air Force might soon find itself unable to defend our air space, unable to counter threats from hostile states, to conduct foreign military campaigns either as part of our wide NATO commitment or maybe even to defend the rights of those in our overseas territories and elsewhere to whom we also have a duty of care to protect.


Since then as we already know to our cost and due to the apparently ruthless nature of ‘government’ in terms of airpower capability we have in terms of defence capability moved from one geo-political crisis to another. And yet, for all the damage that the Coalition Government has done to strategic air power capability it remains equally true to say that whatever the nation has demanded, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy has somehow found itself able to meet. That in itself is a miracle but in doing so capability has been stretched to the bone.


We take our hats off to all that have engaged in Libya just as we do those serving in Afghanistan, on the High Seas defending UK trade routes, our dependent territories including the Falklands, our wider role within the NATO alliance and of course, defending the United Kingdom itself. Today dependent on where we choose to look across our armed forces structure we see devotion to duty undaunted combined with motivation destroyed.

The stark message that was given out by Air Marshal Anderson in the Slessor lecture last year (AVM Anderson is former Assistant Chief of the Air Staff and currently director general of the Military Aviation Authority) at the annual Slessor Lecture given to the Air League in the House of Commons in October last year should have been warning enough. Moreover the speech was delivered with a combination of stealth, knowledge, deep seated sincerity and first-hand experience. In my own long personal experience covering and supporting defence and military capability, the defence industrial base and defence exports I can say that I have never known a more stark warning to government by a senior member of the RAF over the perceived consequences of potentially damaging cuts to air power capability.


The speech itself was in essence a plea to government that we should avoid going down a road that we might later regret. That message was as real and necessary as it also was very timely in my view – a bleak warning of the level of risk that we might take should we allow air power capability to be devalued further than it already had! Moreover this was a detailed reminder by the AVM Anderson of the deterrence value of air power capability and of how this is also required to play out in keeping aggressors at bay before a shot has been fired in anger.


That the real value of air power as deterrent capability is maybe less easy to quantify directly should not hide from the value of having it. Air power of course is about far more than just fast jet capability and Quick Reaction Alert. It is also about a mass of other sophisticated support capability such as ISTAR capability, tanker refuelling and transport. But even if the deterrence value may sometimes be difficult to directly quantify or measure if we stop for a moment and think we should be able to see that the deterrent effect of UK air power capability has played a significant part in maintaining peace in the UK and Europe over the past two generations.


Walk away from maintaining air power in terms of deterrence and you might as well walk away from the whole idea of defence. Walk away from holding appropriate levels of deterrence in the form of air and sea power now and I am left to conclude that the ultimate price to be paid would be vast. Indeed, given the expectation that government resources will remain thin for at least the next ten years and most probably well beyond the dreamed of Future Force 2020, we may soon be left with resources so stretched that we could no longer defend our own islands.


This paper concentrates on air power but I take nothing away from the vital role that sea power also takes in defence and the international role that we play. We ignore at our peril the vital role that the RAF plays and that this is not just related to pure defence of the realm – it is also the role that is played within the vast NATO theatre and for which as a perceived rich nation state we rightly have a large and established commitment.


The so called Arab Spring should have taught us much but sadly it seems that our government has preferred to ignore the lessons of history. In the end experience always teaches us that no one can ignore the lessons of history – Libya then should have been an object lesson of this and a timely reminder to doubters – translated that means that we risk endangering air power capability if we run down the Panavia Tornado GR4 force too early, that in terms of ISTAR capability, losing Sentry when we pull out of Afghanistan risks seriously endangering that capability, that rotor capability needs to be further enhanced, that Sea King replacement within the SAR (Search and Rescue Helicopter project) operation should be retained by the RAF and Royal Navy and that acquiring more UK built EH101 Merlin helicopters would provide the best answer and so on. It also means that placing too much belief that the planned ‘Future Force 2020’ provides all the answers is misplaced.


Having lost a further two squadrons of Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft in 2011, having lost a fleet of near eighty Harrier aircraft that are now resting up in Lincolnshire on a care and maintenance basis ahead of a proposed sale to the US to be broken up for spare parts, having over the past year lost the total fleet of Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance aircraft, the two remaining Nimrod R1 reconnaissance aircraft together with the whole proposed fleet of rebuilt Nimrod MRA4 fleet being scrapped, having also been told in ‘SDSR 2010’ that post Afghanistan the whole fleet of Sentinel aircraft acquired just a short time ago will be scrapped following the end of our involvement in this theatre, we have been left with the knowledge that RAF Air Power capability has already or soon will be reduced to its lowest level in three generations. Soon, if the SDSR process is followed all the way through to the letter we will, under Future Force 2020, have less fast jet capability in the UK than might be found on a single Nimitz class aircraft carrier in the US. In saying this let me please remind that the US Navy has eleven aircraft carriers and that we are talking here US Navy fast jet capability and that this ignores massive air power capability held by the US Marines and US Air Force.


I have said many times before in this series that air power is not just about fast jet capability. Far from it and yet SDSR 2010 intends to obliterate, with a handful of exceptions, the entirety of so many RAF force elements. Today each and every element of RAF air power capability can be found serving the nation be it in the long term Afghanistan theatre, in Libya, protecting UK airspace or that of our dependent territory in the Falklands and in playing such an important role from RAF Akrotiri on the Sovereign Base territory of Cyprus. Am I thus entitled to take the view that our already weakened and depleted air power capability is, as I and other claim, already stretched beyond the bounds of what should have been a decent well thought out defence strategy? Yes!


Sitting within the Cabinet Office we now have the National Security Council in whose hand as chief architect much of what we see in SDSR was writ. Sir Peter Ricketts will soon be walking away – moving on to pastures new in Paris leaving utter devastation of UK defence capability in his path. Worse though and still left behind in the Cabinet Office are those two arch deacons who are most opposed to defence in the form of Francis Maude MP and Oliver Letwin MP.


While we may rightly wish the new Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP who, with no past experience in defence, has very quickly been dubbed a numbers man and ‘Forensic Phil’ the very best of luck we may at the same time also need to wish our military chiefs far more than just that.


Meanwhile, we fight on with one half of our still crucially important Tornado GR4 fleet committed in Afghanistan and Libya and the brilliant Typhoon aircraft capability and crews, stretched of training resources as they are and yet, through the Libya campaign having proved the aircraft in both combat and in the air to ground role, back home for a well deserved rest. The synthetic and actual flying training capability at RAF Coningsby has at least moved forward in the right direction albeit that there is still some way to go yet.


Delivering his Slessor lecture year, Air Marshal Anderson went on to detail the extremely wide range of RAF operational capability and requirements that ISAF forces in Afghanistan call on. He reminded that the RAF Regiment continues to provide force protection and to enable operations at Kandahar and Bastion airfields to continue just as they still do now both in Afghanistan and Libya. Anderson also reminded his audience that “the RAF contributes disproportionately to the delivery of air operations and the provision of intelligence to operations in Afghanistan and to RAF officers command in the joint and Coalition environments” – a reference that constantly reminds how much Britain pushes above its weight in the commitment to NATO whilst so called allies such as Germany do so little with vastly greater quantities of capability.


Listing a great many operations in which the RAF is currently or has recently been involved and stressing always the value and necessity of maintaining strong ISTAR capability, in his lecture Air Marshal Anderson covered a vast array of activity in which the RAF plays a vital role in supporting the ideals of our nation. He told us, for instance, that “high end capability is not synonymous with Cold War ‘white elephants’ no matter how many screeds of populist copy might profess otherwise”. One year on and with Libya fresh in the mind those words hold a prophetic message for all of us.


Air Marshal Anderson went on to say that “they [high end fighter capability] are an essential component of any fighting force that aspires to operate within anything other than comparatively benign environments”. These facts although unarguable contain a difficult message for those of us attempting to bang home to an ill-informed ‘public’ that still sees the Royal Air Force as being about huge and unnecessary cost.


Time and time again our air power capability has served the nation very well and I am in no doubt that it will do so again. Dare we allow our government to squeeze the air power capability and the deterrence power that it also provides to proportionately much lower levels held by some of our European partners and allies? I think that history tells us that the answer is that we cannot. Dare we ignore that as we stand now nine years before the situation gets even worse in the perceived Future Force 2020 we have such limited and stretched levels of air power capability that soon with the loss of ISTAR capability we will not even be able to know where our enemies are let alone from where new potential enemies and conflicts might in future emerge? Is the real defence of this nation not equally bound up with naval power and are we not ignoring history that tells us future conflict is inevitable?

CHW – London – 18 October 2011

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd

M +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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