20 Jul 15. Having been away from my desk for most of the last two weeks either in the USA, air power related conference events and at RIAT it is nice to be back with my keyboard and screens. It has certainly been busy two weeks for defence and one that has seen not only the best military air show event in the annual calendar take place at RAF Fairford, and a place where military and industry meet in a more informal and relaxed manner and much networking is done, but also one that we hope has marked a real change of direction in Government attitude toward future UK defence requirements. I will touch on both aspects of this but first allow me to reflect on the three days that I spent at RIAT this year and of what I take home from this.
I am not quite sure how many times that I have attended the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) over the years but this year’s event was undoubtedly the best for me personally of all those that I have. Well done to the RIAT organisers and to the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust (RAFCTE) and that keeps the 30 year tradition of excellence alive and well. Thanks for considerable efforts that have been put in by the many volunteers and the work done behind the scenes to ensure that VIP guests such as the 40 international Air Force chiefs and other VIP’s who attended got all that they required.
Not only was RIAT 2015 a celebration marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain it was also to be a fitting reminder of the real value of air power defence and how this continues to play a vitally important role in the security of the nation and thus, in all of our lives. The Gala Dinner is one of the highlights of the year as far as I am concerned and the ‘Sunset Ceremony’ during which the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford took the salute alongside Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Michael Fallon to the wonderful sounds and marching of the Royal Air Force band and both Spitfire and ME-109 swooping and swirling overhead is a delight to witness. To that we should add not only the superb decked out hangar venue for the Gala Dinner itself, replete this year with Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado GR4 and Typhoon fast jets plus an Airbus Puma HC2 helicopter all parked alongside each other inside the hangar to watch over us, but also the superb speeches delivered by Northrop Grumman CEO, Andrew Tyler, Airbus UK President, Paul Kahn and by Secretary of State for Defence himself
And what of the flying displays? From a personal standpoint to see on each day large numbers of Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft flying in formation raised the hairs on one’s neck. Displays by the Airbus A400M, Typhoon and Boeing Chinook stole the show in terms of present day military air power capability but it is surely fair to say that this year was one in which the historic aircraft that included those mentioned above and a magnificent Bristol Blenheim and Messerschmitt ME 109 that provided the greater pleasure. Oh, what wouldn’t I have done to have been in one of those splendid aircraft flying overhead! And then there was the final appearances at RIAT (on both Saturday and Sunday) of Vulcan XH558 and of which can only be said that this was an absolute delight – most particularly on Saturday when the crew appeared to take extra liberties – and of course, to see this fine aircraft later flying in a ‘V’ formation with the Royal Air Force Red Arrows. This was something that none of us who watched it will ever forget. The decision to ground XH558 at the end of the season has certainly not been taken lightly but it was is in my view very well-reasoned. Having first seen these aircraft fly at RAF Gaydon back when I was a young air cadet in the Air Training Corp in the mid 1960’s it is of course sad that we shall not see it’s like in the skies again but I do believe that the right decision has been made.
To the sponsors of RIAT including BAE Systems and the many other defence companies perhaps not already mentioned including Rolls-Royce, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Marshalls, Thales, Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, QinetiQ, Serco and others and to organisations such as the Royal Aeronautical Society and a great many other corporates and those taking part and who put in such considerable effort in terms of STEM and to encourage young people to look at the aerospace industry as future possible careers particularly in the Techno Zone and to the Royal Air Force as well we give our thanks. Thanks also to large numbers of senior Royal Air Force officers and personnel who came and gave their time at RIAT and who worked so hard whether briefing or interacting with industry and press to better inform. Most of all though and quite apart from the corporate sector who invest much money and time to make RIAT such a success it is the 100,000 members of the public who in a completely sold-out event that featured no less than 250 aircraft taking part and without whom RIAT would be nothing that we must thank.
Finally a word to Andy Armstrong, RAFCTE CEO and who in what has been his first year in this challenging role has with his team worked so hard to make this a brilliant and very successful RIAT. So that is it for another year and we look forward to RIAT 2016 which, I would remind, is for next year only brought forward by one week so that the dates for the event are the 8th, 9th and 10th July.
In terms of talking points the main issue was undoubtedly that of the change of approach signalled by the Chancellor of Exchequer in the previous weeks’ budget in terms of settling defence expenditure on a supposedly rising trend.
In terms of announcing the maintaining the 2% of GDP that will continue to be spent on defence over the next five years I made my views known last week in what was to be the only piece that I managed to write – UK defence – Of Doubts, Uncertainties and Ambiguity. I change nothing from that even with a week of RIAT hindsight. As someone pretty high up the tree said to me afterwards, ‘your nose not deceive you.
As to the ‘rising’ defence budget in 2016/17 and beyond there was plenty of talk about smoke and mirrors to be heard. Was this justified? Well, not to the Secretary of State for Defence of course and at the very least we know that the equipment budget will rise by 1% annually in the years 2016 to 2021. We also now know that the overall budget will rise by 0.5% (above inflation) each year as well.
At worst we can I believe be satisfied that we are not going to see a cut in the defence budget and that the budget itself has been ring-fenced and set in stone is the positive part of this debate. That said, in this day and age and in the knowledge of how these things are done the smoke and mirrors approach that many are taking to this otherwise positive outcome is perfectly understandable.
None of this means that efficiencies will not be damned of defence and we can be assured that SDSR 2015 even if this is to be considered ‘light touch’ will not see considerable efforts to reduce costs and make defence more cost efficient. We must live with that. But I suspect we will not see any further changes to defence programmes and for that we should be grateful. The Prime Minister has been at pains to talk about increasing ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability and I welcome that even if I am not sure how they will manage issues of affordability in terms of the urgency and priority this form of capability requires.
Defence spending may in the current year be bottoming out but in terms of the Royal Air Force airpower construct it is true to say that it lacks resilience because in part we have an insufficient number of fast jet squadrons today. This must change in SDSR 2015 and we must look to have a minimum of nine fast jet squadrons as we move ahead from here. Yes, we must step up the remotely piloted construct too but for now it is imperative that we retain three Tornado squadrons right through and up to the out of service date in 2018/19. We are investing in Typhoon weapons delivery and in radar too and to that end we must invest more in synthetics and training. I have already (in the current issue of the Royal Aeronautical Society ‘Aerospace’ Magazine expressed my severe doubts about closing RAF Linton-on-Ouse and moving 72 (R) Squadron flying training to RAF Valley.
I am also concerned that in order to save money Tranche 1 Typhoon capability may be withdrawn years too soon and also that even Tranche 3 aircraft not yet built remain on a ridiculous out of service date of 2030 as opposed to the 2040 minimum that it should be. Yes, I know that in terms of Tranche 1 this is probably in the hope of avoiding the necessity of building in upgrade later in the cycle just as it probably is for the other two tranches but it is ridiculous nonetheless. We lack far more than just resilience as we lack capacity too and the situation is little different for the Royal Navy. I worry about pushing requirements further back and I include in this complex weapons of which we are, following years of Royal Air Force deployment on overseas conflicts, low.
Our military personnel are eager to hear positive change too and they search for the motivation and incentive to believe that defence is moving in the right direction that they have been lacking ever since SDSR 2010. Defence has been run on a shoestring for far too long and with it the precious resources of training. The new message from Government in terms of its sighting of the defence budget may suggest that it has been listening but we will have to wait and see.
Last but not least, we need to see commitment to defence exports just as we do to sovereign capability. The bulk of our defence exports are linked to our huge air power involvement. What we have to offer is fantastic and yet our government has as yet shown reluctance to accept that to win business requires government involvement through government to government agreements. We need strong commitment from government and in foreign markets we need to be seen as being just as strong and determined to succeed as the French. We also need to be seen to have ambition.
CHW (London – 20th July 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785