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RIAT and RAF Air Power Conference Wrap Up – Cementing Strategic Partnerships By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

While the 2017 RAF Air Power Conference (APC) and Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) may be over for another year the legacy from both events will be that they have both played an important part in shaping the future of air power. Now that the dust has settled and having been at both events throughout, what follows is a personal debrief of respective professional elements that from my perspective emerged from both the 2017 APC Conference and from RIAT.

For many of those engaged in military air power these are to be considered ‘the’ two most important airpower events on the calendar. By long tradition the APC, which is held in London, folds directly into the RIAT and which for many years now has been held at the USAF air force base, RAF Fairford, in Gloucestershire. Important not just because of the professional discussion, learning and debate that is created but also because they are rightly perceived to be the two single most important pure air power related networking events held in the UK. From the wider defence perspective, we are fortunate that the UK also plays host to Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition, an equally important event that is held every two years at the EXCEL centre in London. This year, DSEI will be held from the 12th to the 15th of September together with specialist defence related conference events being held at the venue on the day before the show opens.

All three are must attend events for those engaged in defence, but in respect of airpower, the importance of both APC and RIAT in both the national and international context cannot be overstated.

2017 Air Power Conference

Immediately preceding RIAT, the 2017 Air Power Conference had a chosen theme this year of ‘Future Partnerships’. What follows are just some of the issues related to the chosen topic raised by speakers together with occasional additional comment from me.

Air Vice Marshal ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, RAF Chief of Staff Capability, told the conference that “UK armed forces needed to change their approach to information and data and that they should move away from a focus on ‘collect’, towards viewing data as something that can be exploited on a ‘second by second basis’ to provide vital information to fighter pilots”. These are not elaborate themes, they are moreover strong points that to me recognise the importance of change in how warfare is conducted today. AVM Rochelle added that “the air force should also become more accustomed to sharing information with allies, NATO and ‘coalitions of the willing’ in order to fully exploit the benefits that information offers to cooperation and operational effectiveness” This, he said, was “vital in supporting the extended global reach of the Royal Air Force, in particular its role in counter terrorism and in which” he suggested, “integrated operations need to utilise multiple platforms capable of sharing situational awareness and actively exploiting satellite data”.

AVM Rochelle took the view that a significant shift would be required to move the Royal Air Force away from a focus on platforms towards that of prioritising capabilities and outcomes. His belief was that “the UK had taken its eye off the ball in particular with regards to homeland security”. Wrapping up what was a most interesting address, AVM Rochelle mentioned that the Royal Air Force had established a Rapid Capability Office in order to be able to keep pace with industry (capability) enhancement and to hopefully bring down the barriers to innovation and also encourage a degree of necessary risk-taking.

In what was probably seen by the audience as being the most inspirational presentation from a member of the private sector, Mr. Herman Narula, CEO of a British based multinational technology company ‘Improbable Worlds’ emphasised on the number of opportunities that relatively new companies such as his offer to ‘defence’.

Explaining how, in his view, a more flexible approach to partnerships will be central to providing the Royal Air Force with the latest technology and that will enable it to fully exploit rapid advancements being made in areas such as Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) he said that “working with partners in new innovative areas is an exercise in risk. It is” he said “about being tolerant of the fact that a lot of initiatives and projects will fail. The way that innovation was balanced with risk” he thought “was a fundamental problem, and one that could stymie the ability to create new capabilities and be able to adapt to new technologies”.

Within the context of ‘future partnerships’ and in emphasising the importance of creating new novel partnerships in order to ensure that the Royal Air Force is equipped to operate in increasingly contested operational environments, Lt. Gen (Retd) Sir Graeme Lamb, former director of UK Special Forces said that “partnerships between defence and commercial enterprises would play a ‘pivotal moment’ in the nature of warfare and that in respect of adapting to future needs, this represents a paradigm shift’. He talked of the ‘cyber caliphate’ still being alive internationally despite Daesh having been removed from various places where allied forces have removed them, and tackling ‘core underlying causes is by far the more complex and demanding problem’ and that to do so will require far better relationships between the defence industry and the commercial sector to facilitate adaptation and exploitation of new technologies. Artificial Intelligence” he said  is already challenging many existing RAF doctrines and practices but that to maximise potential this must not remain as ‘a fringe concept”.

In separate and interesting remarks made within an excellent presentation, Air Commodore Jonny Stringer, Air Officer Commanding RAF No 83 Expeditionary Air Group based at Al Udeid in Qatar, mentioned that [in respect of future complex weapons development]  he would ‘like to see something between a Brimstone and a Paveway’ for use against potential targets during operations. An interesting new challenge for industry and, given the strength of the UK complex weapons industry, not one that is beyond their powers to achieve.

Diversity was also an issue raised at the APA and it was pleasing to hear confirmation from the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, said that the Royal Air Force Regiment will, from September, allow women to take on close combat roles. “A diverse force is a more operationally effective force” Sir Michael said and few would disagree with that.

There were far too many excellent presentations at the Air Power Conference to mention here so I will conclude my wrap up of APC 2017 by mentioning some of the many very excellent points raised by General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force and who, as the final guest speaker, reminded of the importance of air forces “being prepared for future conflict”.

With USAF having decided to use the 2017 Royal International Air Tattoo as its European celebratory point for its main 70th anniversary events over this side of the ‘pond’ there was perhaps no-one better that General Goldfein to provide a wider view of air power related defense and to emphasise the need for air forces to be prepared. At both the APC and the Air Tattoo, General Goldfein had within the audience for the two separate keynote addresses he would make, no fewer than 45 air force chiefs from all over the world. A truly excellent and motivational speaker, what follows are further comments made during his APC address:

General Goldfein, whose term of office will likely stretch through 2021, reminded the audience of his view that “future conflicts will be transnational, multi-domain and multi-component in nature”, features of which, he said “are already being seen in present day wars. If we go to war against peer or near-peer country before 2021” Goldfein said “the question for me is what kind of service am I building for [the next chief of staff] in order for them to fight and win”? “In a future conflict with peer or near-peer, we may not [be able to] control the time frame. In [the past] sixteen years of warfare we have been able to operate in uncontested environments. Syria” he said “has been a new game for us.”’

Citing the need to ensure coalitions can operate effectively, General Goldfein added that “it was key the technological gap between partners not be too great as to hinder its overall efficacy”. Additionally he said “for USAF, certain command and control capabilities would have to be relearned” adding that “the past 16 years we have walked away from and traded away some of our deployable command and control capabilities. We need to think about C2 relative to the flow of information and as we build to the future, how we do this is a coalition environment.” He reminded of the potential role that private industry and enterprise could play in the future USAF shape and capability adding that “systems such as the Uber service could indicate the kind of interconnection of systems for certain functions, such as CSAR. Industry” he said “is going there. How do we jump on board and make use of those opportunities?”

All in all, this was an excellent address providing significant food for thought.

Royal International Air Tattoo        

I do not have the actual numbers to hand of those that attended the Air Tattoo this year but I can second guess that once again attendance records will have been broken.

The Royal Air Force and the US Air Force are to be particularly commended for the huge effort that they placed on RIAT this year, the former particularly in respect of the number of senior RAF officers who attended along with a number of other senior members of the UK military, for displays such as Typhoon, the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) but also for the excellence of the RAF Village and which is designed to demonstrate all the various aspects of RAF capability and trade.

The importance of the University Air Squadrons (UAS) and the Air Training Corp (ATC) were not missed either and it was pleasing for me in particular to converse with those charged with the reconstitution of Air Cadet gliding and to observe that, albeit very slowly, progress is now being made nationally following a variety of self-induced issues that for too long have prevented cadets from enjoying the gliding experience. The importance of both the ATC and UAS of being potential entry points for those that will join the RAF in the future should never be lost.

The ability of the Royal International Air Tattoo to act as ‘the’ event in which to encourage young people into air power related careers whether this is through the investment that industry puts into the Air Tattoo or of what the Royal Air Force puts into the event is second to none. Industry places great importance in RIAT and rightly so. Emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is writ large right across RIAT and the effort put in my industry, academia and organisations such as the Royal Aeronautical Society plays a big part in the success of RIAT.

As to the aircraft displayed and flying displays, brilliant is the only word that I am able to use. Along with over 45 Air Force chiefs from all over the world and their respective military teams, some 246 aircraft from 32 international air forces participated. I understand that 63 official military delegations attended RIAT this year. Visitors were also treated to a surprise flypast on the Sunday of the event by a stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, escorted by two F-15 fighters, the superb USAF Thunderbirds Demonstration Team.

Other flying display highlights included the French Air Force’s Couteau Delta team flying two Mirage 2000D fighter aircraft, the Midnight Hawks which represent the Finnish Air Force aerobatic display team, a superb RAF Typhoon demo flight flown by Flt Lt Ryan Lawton, the appearance of a Russian-built Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’ from the Ukrainian Air Force and so on. Add to these the excellence of the RAF Red Arrows display team and sheer elegance of flight and sound created by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from RAF Coningsby and that included the return of the Avro Lancaster. No Royal Last but by no means least, the appearance and subsequent display at RIAT this year by a pair of USAF Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets can only be described as being formidable.

Highlights amongst the 115 aircraft within the static park included a US U-2 spy plane, a Boeing E-7A Wedgetail ‘Airborne Early Warning’ aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force, US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft including members of the RAF Seedcorn Crew who have been working alongside US Navy crews for the past four years and who will play a leading role bringing P-8 into Royal Air Force service from 2019, a Royal Canadian Air Force Boeing CH-147F Chinook Helicopter which interestingly, had been airlifted over to RIAT in the back of a giant Boeing C-17 ‘Globemaster’ aircraft and also displays by the superb Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey rotary wing aircraft capability. No mention of air displays would be complete with mentioning the Panavia Tornado. Our thanks to the Italian Air Force for providing a superb display of this still awesome capability.

The Gala Dinner at the Royal International Air Tattoo is something that those of us fortunate to have been invited over the years look forward to with very great pleasure. The sunset Hosted by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier and with guests including the Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Sir Michael Fallon, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach and as guest speaker this year, General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, U.S Air Force, the Gala Dinner event, which is preceded by a ‘Sunset Parade’ including band of the RAF Regiment marching to a BBMF Spitfire flying overhead as the UK and US Air Force Chiefs take the salute is one if not the highlight of the year.

With excellent introductory comments from the Chairman of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust, Sir Kevin Leeson and who with his team are responsible for making RIAT such a success and whose charity is the primary beneficiary together with brief addresses from Gala Dinner sponsors, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, all that is left for me to acknowledge is the huge support given to RIAT and the RAF Charitable Trust by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

In what I can only describe as being his superb address at the Gala Dinner, General Sir David Goldfein provided one of the most interesting, succinct and motivational speeches that I have had the pleasure of hearing for many years. I will conclude ‘Commentary’ today with two short but inspiring aspects of what he:

“The bonds of trust and confidence we [the UK, US and NATO Alliance] have forged in battle over the last 26 years will be the foundation of our strength for the next 26 years. As airpower leaders and thinkers, we bear the responsibility of ensuring our greatest strength – our partnerships – and that are capable of standing the tests of conflict and crises. To echo Sir Kevin Leeson, our posture for the future and our investments today will be carried forth by the younger generations.  They are our legacy.  There are very few absolute truths we get to manage when we arrive in senior leadership positions”.

“Most of our decisions are made without perfect knowledge and often based on our experience and our gut instincts.  As we celebrate tonight, there are three absolute truths that I believe we can count on: death, taxes, and the fact that we have from this moment tonight until the next war begins, to prepare our forces to own the high ground … to fight and win.  We must treat every week of peace as a blessing and our last week to prepare.  To my fellow air chiefs, I look forward to working side by side with you to do just this. It is our solemn duty. We cannot do more … we should never wish to do less”.

Next year will, as many of you know, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force in 1918. We may be assured that both the Air Power Conference and the Royal International Air Tattoo will play a huge role in celebrations that recognise the past and of what the Royal Air Force has achieved over 100 years, its people, what the Royal Air Force is today and importantly, in projecting what the Royal Air Force intends and needs to be in the future.

My thanks to the organisers of RIAT, the volunteers without whose services an event such as this could not occur, the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust whose work to encourage and support members of the RAF and importantly, to encourage young people by providing projects and initiatives that enable them to fly, to the organisers of the Air Power Conference, the Air Power Association in conjunction with RUSI and the Royal Air Force Centre for Air Power Studies for the excellent work that they have done to ensure that the 2017 Air Power Conference really was a great success.  Finally, industry whose involvement is crucial in terms of making events such as these a success for all concerned, to the Royal Air Force and in particular this year, to the United States Air Force who put so much in to both events and who chose to use RIAT as the European hub in which to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

(Word Copy of this piece is available on request)

CHW (London – 23th July 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





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