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UK Defence – Combat Air Mass Priority By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory

typh22 Sep 15. Within its true context and meaning, while air power remains a complex amalgam of hardware assets primarily based on combat jet mass and capability it is surely equally true to say that the former is inextricably linked with the crucially important Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability requirement that both domains are expected to provide. It is also all too easy to ignore that United Kingdom has engaged in a great many international conflicts since the end of the second world-war and to forget that most usually it is the Royal Air Force that is the first point of call. Air Power remains hugely important whether in manned, unmanned, ISR, transport, refuelling or any other role that it plays but within this context surely nothing is more important than ensuring that we maintain correct levels of combat air mass.

In the first of two separate air power related commentary pieces over the next week I will first revisit the importance of air power mass. I do so because I believe that rectifying the serious errors in judgement made in SDSR 2010 in regard to combat jet capability mass must be the overriding priority of SDSR 2015. I make no apology for stressing the overarching importance that control of the air and space domain is for national defence. Neither do I make any apology for stressing that no other military capability other than air power provides the nation with the unique characteristics of providing large scale agility and immediate response as fast combat jet capability does.

It is only air power that has the available reach to deliver flexible and proportionate force globally with speed, precision and within a given short time frame from the point of political decision to the actual delivery of precision effect. As we begin to face up to the range of defence and security threats that challenge us we must in my view recognise beyond doubt that it is only combat jet capability that can provide the vital combination of delivering precision attack together with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in a contested environment.

These are indeed vital assets in terms of not only our national defence and security environment but also in our ability to deliver on our international commitments and to NATO. In the following defence piece I will look at the crucial importance of air power related to specific intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capability together with other related capability requirement such as MPA/MMA and in subsequent defence pieces over the next few weeks, issues that relate to maritime capability including Successor.

In my previous UK Defence series piece ‘Combat Air Dances on a Shoestring’ that was sent out on July 22nd this year I said that ‘If, as we are constantly being told by our political leaders, Britain really is committed to maintaining the ability to deploy its military around the world and if we recall that the Royal Air Force has for more than 25 years been in almost continual engagement somewhere in the world be this in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo amongst others then we must recognise that allowing the Force to be allowed to come down to just six fast jet squadrons comprising 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3 variants and maybe 40 F-35’s as part of Future Force 2020 plan is as ludicrous as it is dangerous. The UK deserves far better than this from our government when it comes to national defence and the future ability to deploy the Royal Air Force in international conflict wherever it is agreed that we should take part alongside our NATO allies’.

I have also had occasion to say many times over the past year that the Royal Air Force lacks resilience and so it does. My concentration of that point today is in purely in relation to air power in the combat jet form although I readily accept that the issue goes further, wider and deeper than just this. It is though in terms of the visible lack of capacity and available combat air mass that I concentrate on here.

Royal Air Force combat jet capability contributes to three of the four primary air power roles that it is required to permanently conduct on a day to day basis. These are Control of the Air and Space, Precision Attack Capability, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and finally, Situational Awareness. Control of the air is of course the primary requirement of the Royal Air Force and we rightly regard this as being the absolute necessity to secure and ensure freedom of movement that is critical to the conduct of all other military action.

Of course, the Royal Navy plays a very important and prominent role in this too securing freedom of movement in the seas but here and now I intend only to concentrate on the air power related role conducted by the Royal Air Force. I will of course cover aspects of Carrier Power in so far as they impact on both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy at a later date.

So it is that the Royal Air Force performs the primary role in UK national defence and it is they that deliver fast combat jet capability with absolute precision effect. So it is almost always that it is the Royal Air Force that makes the initial contribution to the UK Government’s first and overriding priority – national defence and security, protection of our overseas territories including that of the Falkland Islands and importantly, in providing the ability to deploy air power capability with speed to war zones and to areas of international conflict in which the peace and freedoms that have been established are threatened. We do this of course with our NATO allies and in coalition with other forces wherever these may be threatened. All are areas that the Royal Air Force conducts and that are considered of vital importance.

But if we are honest with ourselves we are now far too weak in terms of capability at our disposal and what we are or will be able to do in the future. The issue for us now is lack of combat air mass and it is this that in my view must addressed in SDSR 2015 as a matter of priority. It is not just the lack of capacity and lack of resilience across and with the Royal Air Force that concerns but also of what the enterprise itself now faces in terms of additional challenges; declining numbers of personnel including fast jet pilots; shortage of navigators due to our having ceased training these far too early; shortage of Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI’s) together with the dangerous reduction in front line fast jet capability. I might add issues such as incentivisation, motivation and lack of communication as well but such things as these are made of strong leadership that is today beholden on Government. Back to the point though and in terms of available fast combat jet mass the Royal Air Force has probably never in its long history been weaker than it is today. Translate this to available capacity and numbers of front line squadrons together with available fast jet aircraft capability and the weakness of the position today may be considered to be bordering on the dangerous.

We must address this by increasing the amount of available air mass and capability that we operate and retain. We must accept that allowing Tranche 1 Typhoon jets to be scrapped, as envisaged in SDSR 2010, must now be rethought. We must also accept that the remaining three squadron of Tornado GR4 capability must not be further reduced before and when Typhoon can be properly considered and determined as being fully multi-role capable meaning able to deliver all of the planned additions to its portfolio of complex weapons plus also completion of fitting of Captor E-Scan ASAR radar capability that as far as I am aware has not yet been ordered.

I do not suggest that affordability can be ignored in all this but I would remind here that the air sector accounted for 87% of all UK defence exports between 2005 and 2014. We in the UK are very good at what we do in defence and we are still looked up to by much of the rest of the world. Demoralised and demotivated our armed forces might have been as they were forced to see and endure the impact of massive defence cuts but they are still brilliant at what they do.

So is our defence industry too and yet one must be concerned about the future and whether there is sufficient work to sustain the requirement for advanced design and manufacturing skills that we have in abundance. The future for the industry will be determined not only by what we spend and our attitude to maintaining sovereign capability but also on what we invest in research and development.

As a whole the aerospace sector accounted globally by value for around two-thirds of all defence exports with the majority of this being fast combat jet capability. For the UK Typhoon and Hawk sales have been paramount in this respect and it was pleasing to see that last week the Government announced that it planned to step up the effort to help Typhoon exports. And yet it stopped short of accepting that to succeed in this objective requires what is known colloquially as G to G or to give this the correct definition, Government to Government agreements meaning that industry become the prime contractor to a G to G agreement.

Of course I welcome anything that the Government intends to do to assist and I recognise that the potential success that awaits the UK if we accept the above and we also accept the need to provide far more in terms of international defence training to potential foreign customers could help pay for what we need to buy for our armed forces here at home. This requires imagination just as it does skill and recognition that there will always be an element of risk.

The value or prosperity agenda is an important element of what needs to be embraced. The Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army have and will continue to support the export agenda. That the MOD will lead on strategic air power related export campaigns such as Typhoon and complex weapons is excellent news but to succeed requires real underlying and genuine commitment and it must embrace the points made above.

Given the visible increase in the level of increase in the level of threat against us and our NATO allies and given the knowledge of recent history and how the Royal Air Force has been the first port of call for our involvement in conflict I remain in absolutely no doubt that under current Future Force 2020 plans we are not only dangerously short of capacity across the whole air power piece but also now critically short of combat jet mass. As I said back in July and have pushed through various speeches made during this year “if, as we are constantly being told by our political masters, Britain really is committed to maintaining the ability to deploy its armed forces around the world then we have no choice but to recognise that after years of savage defence cuts they now lack sufficient resource. They may well have a vast range of new kit and capability at their disposal but the point I that they lack critical mass.

And if on that theme we recall that it is the Royal Air Force that has almost always been the first port of call by successive governments in respect of conflict engagement and that it has now been in continual engagement somewhere in the world ever since the invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and arguably even earlier than that and for example in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and many other war zones assisting our allies and that even today, Army training apart, it is the Royal Air Force that we find alone supporting and helping to protect and assist Baltic states against the fear and threat of possible aggression from Russia and also that it is the Royal Air Force that has been called upon to provide crucial surveillance plus precision bombing alongside our allies in Iraq with the aim of defeating ISIL as well as conducting the permanent NATO role in terms of national defence, the vital  QRA (Quick Readiness Alert) role it is surely self-evident that six squadrons of combat air capability is far from enough.

As I said back in July, to allow Royal Air Force combat jet mass to decline to just six squadrons as envisaged in SDSR 2010 comprising just 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3 variants and maybe, eventually, as many as 40 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, under the existing Future Force 2020 plan was not only ill-conceived and dangerous in my view but tantamount to being an abrogation of responsibility of the part of the then Coalition Government. Defence is and always should be the number one priority of Government not heading toward being seventh placed as it is on the UK government priority list now. Of course, back in 2010 the belief of the senior military and what they were signing up to was that six squadrons would mark the absolute low point and that the number of squadrons would then quickly rise to nine. SDSR 2010 when it came was to very quickly dispel that belief. Today our overall military strength can be seen to have seriously withered on the vine. We must in SDSR 2015 address this and while there are many other defence and security issues that must be addressed within in it must in my view be accepted that the need to increase the number of combat jet squadrons must be the overriding priority.

In conclusion let me say that although I recognise that it was skill of pilots and machines as opposed to mass that allowed the Royal Air Force to win the Battle of Britain there is a limit beyond which we should not allow air mass to fall. We have in terms of combat air capability and mass fallen well below an acceptable limit and this must be reversed. It is of course not for me to decide what number of fast combat jet squadrons is applicable but given the rising level of clearly visible tension and aggression in the world and the increase in the level of threats I must believe that the number the Squadrons required is double the number that we have currently got.

Like many others I watched the 75th anniversary Battle of Britain service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday. I was equally moved as I viewed the few that remain and thought of the many that gave their lives so that we could live in freedom. I watched the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight some of whom I had seen flying over RAF Northolt last Thursday evening when my wife and I were guests of the Royal Air Force Museum at the 75th anniversary Battle of Britain Dinner. Some of the ‘few’ were there too and we talked to them. Their belief that we should learn the lessons of the past and always maintain strong combat air capability is undaunted. So should ours be!

CHW (London 22nd September 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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