Back to the Future? British Air Power and Two Defence Reviews 2010-15

Dr David Jordan

When the Prime Minister sat down in the House of Commons after concluding his presentation of the 2015 SDSR, he may have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction at the largely positive response it received, and not just from his own back-benchers. This may have become a grin by the time the positive media reaction became clear, with much of that based upon the news that substantial investment is to be made in British air capabilities.

For once, the headlines did not revolve around fast jets, with the decision to purchase nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft (MMA) taking centre stage. Often seen as a reversal of the 2010 decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4, more astute commentators noted that it was actually a logical conclusion to the process where experienced aircrew from the old Nimrod fleet became part of a ‘seedcorn’ programme, which saw them posted on exchange tours to allied maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleets to ensure that it would be possible to regenerate an MPA force in due course. The decision to procure the P-8 was an entirely logical consequence of this. While some of the seedcorn aircrew served with the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand air forces on the P-3 Orion, this is an aging (yet still effective) type, which was not going to be the replacement MPA for the RAF. Those who served on the US Navy’s P-8 force, on the other hand, can bring expertise of the type to bear as the MPA force regenerates at RAF Lossiemouth. While the stated plan is for a third of the overall purchase to be in service by 2019, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported to have been negotiating for the loan of a small number of US Navy P-8 airframes to expedite the process of returning an MPA to British service. It is not unfair to say that the government deserves some credit here with the seedcorn initiative, and the recognition that a decision needed to be made in this review. Had there been further delays, there would have been a considerable risk that significant number seedcorn aircrew might have left the RAF, wasting a relatively small and sensible investment.

While SDSR presents the P-8 as an MPA (Section 4.49), this should not obscure the possibility of the aircraft being used as an MMA with the procurement of additional airframes and the Airborne Ground Surveillance system. This aircraft might provide a replacement for the Sentinel R1 in the battlefield surveillance role in the early to mid-2020s. The Sentinel has become something of a serial survivor of reviews now, avoiding rumoured cancellation in the early 2000s, then having its life extended beyond its original retirement date, now to the early part of the 2020s. It would not be entirely surprising to see a further life extension, since the Sentinel has played a valuable role in a number of recent operations. If the type is not extended further, there will be a need to replace its capabilities, and the P-8 seems to offer the most sensible base for achieving this.

The fact that the P-8 is based upon the Boeing 737 offers another possibility, namely in the field of airborne warning and control. This is currently undertaken by of six Boeing E-3D Sentries (aka ‘AWACS’, from Airborne Warning and Control), which entered RAF service more than 20 years ago. Although the type has been upgraded, the question will arise as to how long it can remain effective in service, and whether or not it would be more cost- effective to procure the 737-based E-7 Wedgetail as a replacement. Since the E-3D appears just once in SDSR15, the question of what happens in this important – and often misunderstood – realm of air power seems to have gone unanswered.

Although SDSR is equally vague about the Beechcraft Shadow R1 operated by 14 Squadron RAF, this has more to do with its sensitive operational role and the concomitant lack of publicity. What we do know is that the aircraft will remain in service until at least 2030, after beginning life as an Urgent Operational Requirement which has been ‘taken into core’. In addition to upgrades, the current fleet of five operational aircraft and a trainer will be increased to eight operational airframes. Whether this means that the Army Air Corps’ equally mysterious Islander and Defender aircraft are to be retired or will run on unencumbered by the attention of the press and military commentators is unclear.

These were not the only developments worthy of comment, since the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) fleet will be boosted with the procurement of a new remotely piloted air system (RPAS), the Protector. The RAF currently operates ten of the (in)famous MQ-9 Reaper ‘drone’, while there will be at least 20 Protectors. The Prime Minister announced this procurement some weeks before the SDSR, amid much confusion as to what Protector was. It transpired that it was a renaming of the extant ‘Scavenger’ RPAS programme, and will involve an upgraded Reaper variant. This means that the RAF’s RPAS capability will be double what it is now; what is not so clear, though, is what the imprecise ‘more than 20’ (section 4.49 of SDSR) means. 21? 30? We could, in fact, have seen a commitment to an even greater level of RPAS use by the UK over the next decade or so, which has potentially interesting implications in terms of force structure – as the current ten RPAS are operated by two squadrons, will this mean an expansion in the number of RAF flying units? And if so, will the scheme to recruit RPAS-only pilots and systems operators increase?

Even allowing for certain areas where clarity is lacking SDSR15’s handling of airborne ISR assets seems encouraging, with the restoration of an MPA capability which offers interesting potential developments in terms of surveillance and AWACS replacements from the mid-2020s onwards, and an expansion in capabilities in the ISR field overall, even though there are some questions to be answered as to how that capability will be fully realised when the RAF’s personnel numbers are not apparently going to increase on the sort of scale that might be anticipated.

This was not the only ‘good news’. The C-130J Hercules transport, meant to be retired in 2022 was given a reprieve. There has been much debate as to whether the A400M Atlas was a suitable replacement, since it appeared to be too large to perform the Special Forces support role effectively. Although there was a belief that a small force of C-130s might be retained for this role, the decision to keep 14 airframes was perhaps unexpected. This effectively means that the reduction in transport capability presaged by SDSR10 has almost been reversed, although it must be noted that the extension of the Hercules is only until 2030. Coupled with the introduction of the Voyager and the growth of the Atlas fleet, SDSR15 appears to have set about reversing the decline of the fixed wing transport force. The policy for the support helicopter force, subject of much attention in the past decade, might be said to have been set as ‘steady as she goes’. The decision to introduce two Strike Brigades in addition to 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade suggests that the RAF and Commando Helicopter forces will be kept busy.

The same is almost certainly true of the RAF’s fast jet force. The venerable Tornado GR4, despite some bitter – and often wildly inaccurate – criticism from certain defence bloggers remains a critical part of the RAF’s forces. The review, though, makes clear that the Tornado’s time is drawing to a close (even though a further life extension would not be a surprise) as the Typhoon finally gains the ability to use Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles. That the Typhoon, always intended to be a multi-role aircraft in RAF service, has been hobbled by a multi-national MOU which caused years of delay to the introduction of its full range of capabilities is a lesson worth learning for those involved in future procurement. Until the three remaining squadrons disband in 2018 and 2019, the GR4 will remain at the forefront of operations, potentially completing almost 30 years of continuous operational deployments. The extension of the Tornado force reflects an issue dating back to 1991. Then, the RAF had 30 fast jet squadrons. SDSR10 would have reduced that to six by 2020, a reduction of 80% – yet the tasking for the RAF’s combat aircraft had not diminished by anything like as much. There is a case for saying that the end of the Cold War saw an increase in RAF fast jet deployments against a backdrop of continuing cuts, with little or no ‘peace dividend’. While the increase of the future force to nine squadrons from the planned six addresses some of the problems, it may well be the case that more units are required in due course, and it will be interesting to see how this is addressed.

In this context, the decision to retain two additional Typhoon squadrons and extending their service life until 2040, is welcome. The decision means that the RAF will end up with seven Typhoon squadrons, which was the originally-planned force structure for the type; a true ‘back to the future’ aspect of the review, albeit one which reverses a number of decisions made over the course of the last 15 years or so, not just the last 5. The ability to use the Typhoon in concert with so-called ‘5th generation’ aircraft has already been explored in exercises with the USAF’s F-22 fighters, and this has applicability for work with Britain’s purchase of the F-35B Lighting (or Lightning FG1 in British service).

The F-35 joint strike fighter programme has been beset with problems and vitriolic criticism; indeed, a number of commentators have called for it to be cancelled and for the UK to purchase F/A-18E or F/A-18F Super Hornets, to equip ‘cat and trap’ carriers. This rather misses the point. As well as the defence industrial implications of abandoning the F-35 and the likely diminution of British influence in coalitions without its ‘first night’ capability, it represents a misreading of what the F-35 will deliver, even in the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version. The actual position is perhaps reflected in SDSR15’s increasing the number of aircraft to be purchased by the mid-2020s, thus allowing one carrier to be at sea all year round with F-35Bs as part of the air wing if required. If the intention for a purchase of 138 F-35s is realised, this will further transform the capability of British air power, offering the ability to base 5th-generation aircraft both aboard the carriers and on land bases, making the aircraft not just a step on from the Harrier and Tornado, but a possible ‘game-changer’ in terms of the UK’s ability to project power. There are some potential pitfalls which need to be noted, though. The first is that the pace at which the F-35 is bought may well create a situation where the number of aircraft available to support embarkation aboard a carrier is, at least initially, insufficient. Although the importance of the Queen Elizabeth class to the projection of British air power has been obvious for years (as I suggested here 14 years ago), there is a risk that adopting a concept of use which sees most of the F-35 force tied to carrier operations for at least the first few years of the aircraft’s use might represent a reduction in the flexibility and potential capabilities that the F-35 offers.

The US Navy, for instance, demonstrated this with the deployment of around a third of a an F-14 squadron (VF-154) to a shore base during Iraqi Freedom, and although arguments that the F-35B simply cannot expect to be fully effective if the aircraft ‘hop and hop off’ the QE carriers are entirely valid, the risk of tying a valuable aircraft type to the carrier deck (or, if not embarked, back at base regenerating capabilities after a cruise) needs to be considered very carefully. As the number of F-35s increases, this risk will reduce. It does, though present a second problem, which is the risk of the question of ‘ownership’ being revisited, perhaps more by commentators than by practitioners.

This raises the risk of rejuvenating counter-productive inter-service which achieves little beyond getting in the way. Although not perfect, the Joint Force Harrier experience, with the emphasis very much on ‘joint’ was a valid model which can be built upon. Notions that the FAA should undergo considerable expansion so as to operate the majority of the F-35B force may appear attractive, but the likelihood – given the lack of any significant uplift in personnel numbers for either the RAF or the RN means that such a debate is largely nugatory. The key will be in ensuring that a balance is struck using the joint force, rather than getting becalmed in a circular debate over whether the F-35B is owned by the RAF or the RN; attempting ‘regime change’ at this stage is likely to cause more problems than it solves. The key issue here is one of balance, and as Viscount Templer’s committee which looked at the future of British air power in 1965 (concluding that arrangements were ‘broadly right’) observed, this was often lacking in considerations of air power. It is to be hoped, 50 years on, that this can at last be overcome.

A further consideration will have to be the amount of synthetic training that is projected for the F-35. It is entirely possible that as much as 50% of the training will be conducted in simulators, using encrypted networking capabilities to maximise benefits. SDSR15 did not discuss the burgeoning revolution in synthetic training, and this has obscured just how important a part of F-35 operations this is likely to be. Unless there is a mechanism for placing a significant networked simulator architecture aboard a QE class carrier, then there would be a real risk that the ‘traditional’ model of embarkation would reduce the efficacy of the F-35B force as a result of skills fade. Focusing on past debates between the RN and RAF over aviation is not going to be a helpful course of action when dealing with the F-35B. Whilst there is a risk of overstating just how significant the leap from 4th to 5th generation aircraft is – if only because much of this is based upon manufacturers’ brochures rather than hard experience – it is not unfair to observe that the latent capabilities of the F-35B mean that innovative thought and application of effort is going to matter far more than the imposition of traditional operating and training regimes.

And it is in the arena of training that concern must also arise. Although the RAF and FAA are to receive new aircraft and retain others for longer than planned, these aircraft are – obviously – useless without the personnel to fly and maintain them. It is not entirely clear how a nine-squadron strong fast jet force (vice a planned six), coupled with the purchase of the P-8, an increase in RPAS numbers (and potentially the number of simultaneous RPAS orbits) and the retention of C-130s, Sentinels and Shadows means that the RAF, in particular, is at risk of continuing to ‘run hot’. Given that the RAF ‘returned to contingency’ in 1991, carrying out more than three dozen contingent operations years before the drawdown from Afghanistan supposedly enabled a return to this form of operation, this is an issue which is notable by its absence in the discussion of air power in the SDSR15 document.

Overall, then, there was much to cheer from the perspective of British air power, as key capabilities are to be restored and/or enhanced. There are challenges, though: the risk of returning to outdated thinking about air power (perhaps a greater risk in this sort of format than in actual planning documents) could hamper developments if allowed to flourish, while the question of how a notable increase in aircraft numbers can be allied to ensuring that there are enough people to fly and maintain them remains a nagging concern. Yet SDSR15 should be welcomed from an air power perspective – recognising the importance of the environment to the prosecution of the UK’s military operations in a way which previous reviews have not and laying the foundations for the full potential contribution of air power in a properly ‘joint’ context to be achieved. If, by so doing, it marks the point at which snide comments about 100 year experiments (based upon a gross misreading of a remark by Viscount Trenchard in 1925) can be retired and replaced with mature consideration of what air power can most efficaciously deliver to campaigns, this may be its most significant achievement of all.

Image: A ground crew member with the Royal Air Force preparing a RAF Tornado GR4 ready for take off as it prepares to depart Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan for the final time.

4 comments

  1. David,

    A useful overview, though I am not sure we at the point of a ‘mature consideration’ of what air power can do. There are still to many writers out there willing to go the extremes of both sides of the debate to truly grasp the importance of air power in the joint environment.

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  2. David. Hugely intetesting on the ‘kit’ and ‘capabilities’ front. What is missing, and this goes for SDR as well, is any notion of what these and other forces are expected to do – which is the only basis on which judgements can be made on types, quantities, manpower and the rest. ‘Better than before’ deserves no praise if it remains ‘not enough’.

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    1. Thanks, Adam. You’re right – which is why I’m working on a post which covers exactly that (from the air perspective). I have to admit that as well as wanting to reflect some more on the matter – particularly given the recent endorsement of Future Operating Environment 35, the publication of evidence to the Select Committee on Defence’s twin inquiries into Daesh and into the challenges presented by Russia amongst other sources – I was also wary of trying the saintly patience of the editors with an even longer post than the one presented, hence the gap you’ve noted.

      That said, you’ll have seen that Chris Tuck hints at this problem of matching the warm rhetoric and glowing headline outcomes of the review with cold, hard reality in his post – https://defenceindepth.co/2015/12/16/sdsr-15-five-questions, and this offers a number of provocative thoughts on the point you pose.

      And this, of course, is the key. While Yogi Berra was – as so often – spot on when he complained that ‘it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future’, there has to be a degree of predictive analysis about possible challenges. Some of these are perhaps a little easier to adumbrate. For instance, we can be reasonably certain that operations against Daesh will continue for some time. Some of the challenges presented by a resurgent Russia have echoes of those presented during the Cold War, and will have to be addressed. Protection of the homeland and dependent territories remains a constant. Yet there are questions – not all of the issues relating to Russia (from cyber attack to friends and allies facing ‘little green men’ and lots in between) are obviously covered by SDSR; if the armed forces are to provide more aid to the civil power, should the decision to remove the Search and Rescue helicopter capability from the RAF and RN have been revisited? Although we have some clues and fairly strong hints as to how the post NSS/SDSR15 forces might be employed, there is still analysis to be done.

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