Force Protection isn’t a choice it is an absolute necessity and one that government and those who define the whole culture and stature of UK military power and operation would do well to remember. Force Protection is the single most important element in the concept of air power. Without it, aircraft assets and the people that make possible the deployment of air assets to conflict zones would not be possible without unacceptable risk. The RAF Regiment is there to protect the RAF as a whole in order to allow it to operate and fight in the face of threats.
Looked up to by peer air forces and governments around the globe for the unequivocal leadership it provides across ‘Force Protection’ elements, the RAF Regiment is in my view even more relevant today than on the day it was formed back in February 1942.
The RAF Regiment remains one of the UK’s most flexible, adaptable and cutting-edge fighting units with capabilities that allow them to counter both conventional and non-conventional threats to both the UK and the Royal Air Force. It remains the primary military force protection element that the UK has and its role to reduce the potential for risk, to provide full protection of air assets and military airfields and importantly, to provide reassurance, strength and specialist knowledge and support to military personnel deployed on airfields and bases at home and abroad is crucial.
With a long and very distinguished history and in a fast changing and more uncertain world, the vital ‘Force Protection’ role of the RAF Regiment provides in respect of the military air power concept and operation remains the single most important element of military force protection just as it also plays an equally important yet unsung role in deterrence.
So it is with a combination of sadness and anger that I continue to witness, despite promises to the contrary, successive UK governments playing only lip service to the vital role played by the RAF Regiment within ‘Force Protection’ and in protecting the lives of military personnel deployed and of our aircraft assets. Within the Integrated Defence and Security Review process last year, RAF Regiment resources were further squeezed by the announcement that the corps would lose a further 300 regulars reducing their numbers to around 1,550 – this according to some, reasoning the first ever resignation of an RAF Regiment Force Commander since the corps was founded at the behest of then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
Even worse and demonstrating very clearly that UK’s current senior military hierarchy is at odds over the value and importance of Force Protection, is evidence that emerged subsequent to the recent OP Pitting mission during which allied nations including the US, Germany, France and UK provided significant levels of medium and heavy-lift airpower resource to evacuate their own people and many Afghans and their families who feared for their lives as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and who sought refuge with allied nations.
Literally hundreds of large military Boeing C-17, Lockheed Martin C-130 and Airbus A400M aircraft flew in and out of Kabul Airport two months ago evacuating military personnel and nationals of various countries deployed to or working in Afghanistan including diplomats, embassy staff, interpreters and their families and many others that had a legitimate right to seek protection from the Taliban. The exercise was yet another example of the art of the possible and while this was about evacuation, maybe nothing quite like it in respect of size and scale had been witnessed seen since the Berlin airlift of 1948.
Dominated by the US who had the largest numbers of military deployed in Afghanistan, the Royal Air Force played a very significant role in the Kabul airport evacuation and was without doubt, exceptional in every respect in what it did and achieved. But, with only a handful of trained RAF Regiment personnel used in the evacuation of Kabul airport – those that did take part were primarily used to provide on-board aircraft assistance, it seems that the vital importance ‘Force Protection’ in an exercise of this scale in order to protect aircraft assets and safety of personnel was all but completely ignored.
I make no criticism of the role that the Army played in Op Pitting – there can be absolutely no question that those deployed to Kabul to support the evacuation process did a brilliant job in very difficult circumstances.
That said, for the UK to have all but ignored the relevance of deploying trained ‘Force Protection’ elements at Kabul Airport through what from the outset was considered as a very difficult and potentially dangerous evacuation process beggar’s belief.
With Afghan subjects desperate to get out and onto departing military aircraft in whatever way they could and often seen running across airport taxiways and runways, it was an accident waiting to happen, Indeed, it was only due to pilot skill that a departing RAF C-17 Globemaster avoided a potential accident. I have no idea why the powers that be within the MOD decided that there was no need to have specific RAF Regiment ‘Force Protection’ at Kabul airport, but I live in hope rather than anticipation that lessons will have been learned.
Last week the most senior member of the UK military, the Chief of Defence Staff, gave evidence in relation to actions taken in regard of Op Pitting to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. General Sir Nick Carter who stands down from the post on November 30th told the Committee that the decision taken not to involve RAF Regiment ‘Force Protection’ at Kabul airport was because the perceived threat was deemed to be from the ground and was thus, not an air defence problem”.
I do accept that the US military played the largest role in the military evacuation process and had significant numbers of troops deployed to Kabul airport for the process. I also accept that Kabul airport was in effect ‘protected’ by the Taliban to the extent in that they had determined the final date by which all foreign forces would be required to leave. Although at least one explosion did occur at Kabul airport during the process, the main threat to those working on the evacuation process was that of potential loss of an aircraft landing or taking off due to the potential of internal incident or accident. To me, that makes the need to always deploy trained elements of ‘Force Protection’ even more poignant.
As a highly specialist corps whose principle purpose has always been to counter adversaries across a wide spectrum of threats, the RAF Regiment is the beating heart ‘Force Protection’ and ultimate delivery of UK military airpower. They engage in non-combatant evacuations, recovery of downed aircrew, in-depth defence of airfields, and contested operations around airfields and hostile environments, provide JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and support to Special Forces.
The RAF Regiment is also responsible for the RAF Police and amongst a total of six Field Squadrons may also be found the superb Queens Colour Squadron. There are currently five ‘Force Protection’ wings based at RAF Waddington, RAF Marham, RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Coningsby and RAF Leeming all controlled from Force Protection headquarters at RAF Honington. The RAF Regiment also has a number of Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment Squadrons and has fully embraced all aspects of diversity and inclusion.
Until relatively recently, the RAF Regiment was responsible for provision of CBRN (Chemical Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence) but sadly in another crass decision taken in 2017, this vitally important role was handed over to the Army from whence all that I can suggest is that it has withered on the vine!
Examples of where the RAF Regiment has deployed and what the corps has achieved in respect of ‘Force Protection are manifest and sadly, the list of examples is far too large to include here.
To provide an example of why I passionately believe that the RAF Regiment in its primary role of ‘Force Protection’ remains so relevant and that may go some way to proving the point I would cite the role it played within ‘Operation Tesseral’ – one that allowed unbroken operation of Belfast’s Aldergrove Airport and which the IRA failed over many years of trying to damage or destroy. Suffice to say that the RAF Regiment dominated the ground under departure and arrival lanes in and out of the airfield and never failed in its purpose.
It is quite rightly said that humans are and will in the future most likely continue to be the weakest link in the chain of capabilities that together constitute air/space /cyber power.
Stand-off attack against highly vulnerable military and airfield buildings threatens not only the highly specialist military personnel that may be inside but also vital operational air assets such as military jets, heavy-lift aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles parked in the open or in hangars. It is a basic fact that all remaining Royal Air Force and for that matter, Army and Royal Navy airfields are overcrowded and some, have very limited runway options. Arguably, RAF Brize Norton and RAF Waddington come into this category with both mases maintaining and operating a variety of crucial air force elements.
Specialist ‘Force Protection’ is absolutely essential and anyone who might wish to suggest that the Army should be handed the role will in my view be in denial of so much past operational evidence of the highly specialist ‘Force Protection’ role that the RAF Regiment plays out so consistently well and reasons why our universally respected ‘Special Forces’ and those who know and understand what the RAF Regiment is there for as an integral part of the Royal Air Force also do.
The Army was anxious to get rid of CBRN to the RAF back in SDSR 2010 but due to politics and arguments over budgeting, sadly in this particular case, the SDSR 2015 decisions meant that two years later it got it back. And where is that important capability now……?
I was reminded recently of the late Professor Sir Michael Howard’s observation that “People who are not prepared to put their Forces in harm’s way fight at some disadvantage against those that are”. In our situation in respect of using air power to best advantage, that is only made possible by the RAF Regiment and its dominant role providing ‘Force Protection’,
To that end I would respond by reminding those with direct command of ‘Force Protection’ within the RAF senior leadership and inside the MOD, of the vital role that ‘Force Protection’ plays and will in future play and also of the confidence this provides to all serving personnel who might happen to be deployed on the ground and at military airfields both at home and abroad. I would also note here with delight that at long last, my understanding is that from next year RAF Regiment ‘Force Protection’ will be implemented at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Today air power wars may be fought with a variety of different missile technology and other weapons together with ISTAR related support. Future wars we are constantly being told will be about manned and unmanned aerial capabilities, cyber, space power and AI. But when it comes to threats on the ground it is also the venerable Kalashnikov and other ground-based attack systems including terrorist acts that still rule and probably always will.
CHW (London – 17th November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785