DEFENCE (5) AIR POWER – STILL OFFERING THE BEST WAY FORWARD
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
20 Aug 10. Seventy years to the day since then Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech heaping praise on the Royal Air Force with the immortal words “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” and that has today been celebrated in a special ceremony and flypast in Whitehall today we look at the value of Air Power, what it is, what it does and indeed, why its contribution to the defence of the UK is of paramount importance.
In our view no matter how one looks at what the future defence needs of Britain may be, a strong Royal Air Force driven by the continual need for excellence in both air and information superiority will be crucial. There can, in my view, be no substitute or second best solution if Britain is to ensure that in a fast changing world it is adequately defended. Today in Afghanistan we are fighting a Counter Insurgency campaign but right now we can have little idea whether as part of similar NATO commitments or not we might be fighting to ensure that freedom is protected in the future. Indeed, we have never really known ahead of the last twenty odd conflicts in which we have been involved the type of war we would soon be fighting and of what equipment and forces would be needed except that they would require force manpower and most often air power as well.
We all recognise that within a national budget defence by its very nature is a hugely costly business. But sadly there can be no substitute to holding adequate and sustainable levels of defence forces and equipment if there is to be any kind of surety that our children will live their lives in complete freedom. Air Power which will most often work alongside naval and ground forces remains a crucially important concept and one that has I am pleased to say proved its value time and time again. It will do so again and yet it will continue to adapt and be even more flexible. We must ensure that we place adequate recognition on the value of Air Power to our society and we must also ensure that it is always adequately resourced. That does not mean that the concept of Air Power should at any time be inflexible to the needs of a nation that is struggling to balance its books of course but it does mean that the SDSR process must look well beyond the current period of national economic difficulty. Air Power be it in the form of Control of the Air, Air Mobility, Lift or through the increasingly important ISTAR capability whether required to support NATO led conflicts, protection of our dependent territories or defence of the UK and its seas is in my view a vital commodity if we are to retain command of the skies.
So what is the correct definition of air power? There are many definitions all of which are probably quite correct but perhaps the most common is “the ability to project power from the air and space to influence the behaviour of people or the course of events”. More simply put might be to say that air power is the manner in which, in the case of the UK at least, the Royal Air Force can at very short notice change the course of events through the military use of both air and space. Air power is thus about having air superiority that quickly leads to dominance of the skies. It is also correctly determined officially as being about speed (the rapid arrival and build up of aircraft in troublespots, providing a visible sign of presence and intent with a flexible force of aircraft that can be quickly switched between attack, defence and support) of height (air power is less vulnerable to enemy power compared to land and sea forces) and reach (air ops can be conducted from bases far away as both the RAF and USAF have proved). Moreover, these days air power is not just about firepower it is also just as much about presence and avoidance of using unnecessary firepower. Of course it is also about ens