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UK Defence – RAF Combat Air Mass Dances On Dangerous Shoestring By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


bear222 Jul 15. This morning the Daily Telegraph highlights a warning from IHS Janes suggesting that it would be perverse to cut the number of fast jet aircraft in the RAF inventory any further. The analysis provided by IHS Janes points to current policy, outlined in the SDSR 2010 process, that by 2019, including a very small handful of Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning jets that will be used for ‘Carrier Strike’ capability, the combat aircraft inventory in the Royal Air Force will be down to just 127 front line jets. At that level this equates to about two thirds of the number of fast jets held on a single aircraft carrier of the US Navy of which I might add, they have eleven.

To regular readers of ‘Commentary’ figures such as those quoted above will come as no surprise. I have arguing for greater combat mass capability for years and in my role as a defence commentator stressing that the alarming level of decline in Royal Air Force combat jet capability must be reversed. I will continue to argue the case for combat air mass just as I will for greater ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and International Defence Training capacity.

As a whole force the Royal Air Force lacks resilience and now stretched to the absolute limits in terms of available fast jet capability and with the number of combat air squadrons planned to be down to just six by 2020 I am left in no doubt that the Royal Air Force will, on present plans that require not only all of the remaining 87 Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft in the inventory and that currently provide the bulk of multi-role capability to be retired by 2018/19 but alongside of them all 53 Tranche 1 Typhoon aircraft capability as well.

While it may seem rather naïve now to remind that back at the end of the ‘cold-war’ in 1990 that the Royal Air Force then had 33 fast jet squadrons it is a timely reminder of how things have changed and also of how the Royal Air Force has adapted to change. I do not argue that the end of the ‘cold war’ required that big cuts should be made and that by 2003 the number of front line fast jet combat air squadrons should have been reduced to 17 or even that by 2010 this had come down to just 12. I can just about live with that but what I cannot live with or accept in any shape or form is that combat jet capability has and will continue to be further reduced until the number of active squadrons by 2020 will be just six.

That is unacceptable to me even allowing that modern fast jet aircraft capability can achieve far more than predecessor aircraft and that technology and the introduction of remotely piloted air systems capability means that we can reduce the level of combat air mass even further. We need to be thinking an absolute minimum number of nine squadrons, a figure that ironically is what the Royal Air Force thought it was signing up to in SDSR 2010.

By 2020, if the policy dictated within SDSR 2010 is carried out the Royal Air Force would by my reckoning have just 107 Tranche 2 and 3 variants of Typhoon and even less I suspect if some of these aircraft, including some of those yet to be built, were to be temporarily diverted for export purposes.

It is worth reminding that when SDSR 2010 policy was first published (note that I refuse to call this a strategy) in November of that year the thought behind this was that we (meaning the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy) would have approximately 100 Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter F-35C variants as opposed to the now expected maximum number of 48 F-35B STOVL (Lightning) variants.

Not-withstanding question marks over the loss of true-deep penetration capability I do not argue the virtues of the Government having, in 2012, decided to swap back to the ‘B’ STOVL (short take-off vertical landing) variant of this fine aircraft capability on the grounds of the cost of retrofitting proposed EMALS cats and traps capability on the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and having myself played no small part in that change process I look forward to seeing the first of the initial eight aircraft that we have ordered arrive and be placed in the hands of 617 Squadron (due to re-form next year) and that will eventually operate from RAF Marham together with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm which will operate the aircraft as part of 809 Naval Air Squadron.

If, as we are constantly being told by our political leaders, that Britain is committed to maintaining the ability to deploy its military around the world and if we recall that the Royal Air Force has been in almost continual engagement somewhere in the world be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo amongst many for the best part of two generations including today I am bound to say that to allow the Force to come down to just six fast jet squadrons comprising 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3 variants and maybe 40 F-35’s by 2020 (in 2010 this was considered a hopeful start and the expectation for the number of aircraft was still far beyond that even if much lower than the originally perceived number of 140 aircraft) beyond this time frame is as ludicrous as it is dangerous. The UK deserves far better than that in terms of home defence and the ability to deploy in international conflicts when required and so do our NATO allies.

As I have frequently reminded, there is no use putting forward a problem without a potential solution. Firstly, I would say that it is crucial that in SDSR 2105 Typhoon ‘Out Of Service’ date (OSD) is moved from the current 2030 date to 2040. Whilst I may question the sense of retiring proven and efficient multi-role Tornado GR4 capability as early as 2018/19 particularly when Italian and German users of the plane are extending theirs to a 2025/2030 timeframe I can live with it. At least we have won the battle of retaining three Tornado squadrons until 2016 and the hope is that all three wit be retained right up to the brought forward OSD in 2018/19.

Secondly I believe a part solution lies in extending Tranche 1 Typhoon capability right out to 2030. To achieve this means that the 53 aircraft in question would need to go through a mid-life update process, something that the MOD has clearly been trying to avoid. Running Typhoon Tranche 1 on makes a great deal of sense. From an air to air perspective the aircraft is for instance very well suited for RAF Lossiemouth and Coningsby based Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) activities here in the UK and also for defending the Falkland Islands. Extending Tranche 1 Typhoon would go some considerable way to improving the combat mass argument although I accept that others see removal of Tranche 1 as the means to fund the Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 case.

The point though is that we are short of mass and thus short of capacity. The Royal Air Force as a whole lacks resilience and as far as I am concerned if the case for retaining Tranche 1 Typhoon means that DE&S needs to prepare a review note for the Treasury the sooner this is done the better. Scrapping aircraft only half way through their useful life makes little if any sense to me. Retaining Tranche 1 would also help the export case in that, if required by a new customer, a small number of Tranche 3 aircraft intended for the UK could be diverted with the RAF taking additional new aircraft later. Finally, I would point out that Tranche 3 Typhoon aircraft for the Royal Air Force, some of which are yet to be built, are also listed as having a 2030 OSD. I am left to believe that by retaining a 2030 OSD the MOD is hoping to avoid mid-life update for these aircraft as well. This too is clearly unacceptable.

CHW (London – 22nd July 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710 779785


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