2018 – will the year of the Royal Air Force be any better than 2017 was for the Royal Navy?


If 2017 was the ‘Year of the Royal Navy (RN)’ then presumably 2018 is the de facto year of the Royal Air Force (RAF) as it celebrates 100 years since its formation on 1st April 1918. For the RN, 2017 proved more problematic than it had hoped. With most of its major warships in harbour, including the Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond, which broke down on the way to the Gulf and the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, suffering from water leaking into the main hull, the challenges for the RN were clear for all to see. These developments in 2017 suggested that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had failed to escape the ‘Groundhog Day Cycle’ of problems in bringing new equipment into service.[1] This raises questions about whether 2018 will indeed be designated the ‘ Year of the RAF’ and whether its prospects look brighter over the next 12 months.

So, will 2018 be the year of the RAF?

On first examination, the answers would appear to be yes. The MoD’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) appeared to be a victory for the RAF.[2] In it, the government pledged to acquire 138 F-35 ‘Lightning’ multi-role fighter aircraft, albeit with the first 48 at least being of the short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant (F-35b) rather than the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant (F-35A) that the RAF would have preferred. The government also decided to retain the first tranche of Eurofighter Typhoons in service which would allow the RAF to form two additional squadrons. The SDSR also committed to acquiring at least 20 new unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), 9 Boeing P-9A maritime patrol aircraft, 3 more Shadow R1 surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and retaining 14 C-130J-30 tactical transport aircraft in service. To support this the RAF was allowed a very modest increment in its personnel numbers.

However, the problems lie in the however. The RAF is confronted with many of the same problems that the RN has encountered. First, its success in the 2015 SDSR is resulting in the chickens coming home to roost. There has been a considerable focus on the RN’s problems with finding sufficient personnel to crew its ships. The minimal uplift in RAF personnel means that it is similarly struggling to find the requisite personnel to form up the promised new squadrons. Personnel shortages mean that the RAF needs rapidly to take its remaining Tornado aircraft out of service in order to shift the personnel to the new Typhoon squadrons, but this migration cannot occur until the Typhoon’s capabilities are extended to replicate those of the Tornado. It also means that the RAF is forced to consider losing the RAF Regiment for the same reason. The obvious solution – changing the personnel balance between the Army, RAF and RN to address these personnel deficits – is effectively blocked by the stove-piping of the three armed services introduced by the MoD’s Levene Reforms since 2010.[3]

Second, even if the RAF has its requisite personnel numbers, it is still confronts affordability issues arising from new equipment procurements announced in the 2015 SDSR, which have subsequently been compounded by the impact of the devaluation of Sterling against the US Dollar since the UK’s 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union.[4] The Sentinel R1 fleet looks set once again to be cut and there are already rumours that the 14 C-130Js will no longer be retained. Moreover, the long-term impact of a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has left the RAF with a number of platforms with obsolescence issues, such as the recently grounded E-3D Sentry airborne surveillance and command-and-control force, and others with high maintenance costs because of their intense operational use in recent operations.

Third, although the RAF continues to be largely disinterested in domestic defence industrial base issues in its aircraft procurement, it is also worth noting that the one area that appears to have exercised commentators outside the RAF continues to be the future of the Red Arrows. A lack of money, and the fact that the remaining fleet of first generation Hawk trainers potentially have sufficient flying hours left, has led the RAF to ignore calls to acquire a replacement for these aircraft produced by BAE Systems. In this it misses the point that the Red Arrows have two roles: they are a recruitment tool for future aircrew and a powerful means of advertising the UK’s defence wares. Flying an obsolete although perfectly serviceable aircraft does not really support either task.

Interestingly, the new Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, whose constituency provides some of the parts for the F-35 programme, announced that the MoD will develop a ‘Combat Air Strategy’ which sounds remarkably similar to the earlier national shipbuilding strategy aimed at preserving the UK’s naval shipbuilding capabilities.[5] This would reinforce the impression that the RAF will increasingly have to take into account wider economic consideration when it looks to acquire systems in the future rather than automatically look to the US for a solution.

So, what will 2018 really mean for the RAF?

It was recently announced that the government’s new National Security Capability Review (NSCR) will be published without the defence element. Instead, the MoD hopes to publish a separate ‘Modernizing Defence Programme’ (MDP) before the parliamentary summer recess. Such an approach can at best be described as novel, and MDP is for all intents and purposes a defence review by another name. As the most recent National Audit Office report on the MoD’s Defence Equipment Plan for the period 2017 to 2027 makes clear, the Ministry confronts an equipment procurement and in-service support affordability gap of somewhere between £4.9bn and £20.8bn over the next decade.[6] The new NSCR looks like it harkens back to the 2008 and 2009 National Security Strategies which both basically said the world is dangerous but provided little in terms of how this might be tacked in policy terms.

This means that we might see the demise of a number of RAF platforms earlier than expected with the end of the Tornado force potentially brought forward to this year. We might also expect to see announcements in 2018 about the early demise of the Sentinel, Sentry, Puma and Hercules fleets buried within Hansard. Offsetting this, there may well be a government announcement that the Red Arrows will acquire new Hawk aircraft as a means of placating Conservative back-bench MPs and nullifying Labour Party opposition to the cuts, further adding to the financial pressure on the defence budget.

In other words, 2018 might well be a year of major cutbacks in the UK’s aerial capabilities unless either the government devotes more money to defence or it revokes the stove-piping of the Levene reforms and shift resources from the Army to make up for personnel deficits in the other two armed services.  At the moment Gavin Williamson is clearly hoping to obtain further funds for defence and has successfully detached defence from the National Security Capability Review. However, if the ‘Modernizing Defence Programme’ does not obtain the additional funds the MoD would like, he is likely to have to consider moving resources between the various Top Level Budgets to meet the personnel needs of the RAF and the possible aspirations of the ‘Combat Air Strategy’.

[1] Paul N Cornish and Andrew M Dorman, ‘Breaking the mould: the United Kingdom Strategic Defence Review 2010’, International Affairs, vol.86, no.2, March 2010, pp.395-410.

[2] ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, Cm.9,161, (London: TSO, 2015), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/555607/2015_Strategic_Defence_and_Security_Review.pdf

[3] Defence Reform An independent report into the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence, (London: MoD, 2011), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/27408/defence_reform_report_struct_mgt_mod_27june2011.pdf

[4] See National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027’, HC.717, session 2017-2019, (London: TSO, 2018), https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/The-Equipment-Plan-2017-to-2027.pdf

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/britain-set-to-launch-combat-air-strategy-defence-secretary-announces; https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643873/NationalShipbuildingStrategy_lowres.pdf

[6] See National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027’, HC.717, session 2017-2019, (London: TSO, 2018), https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/The-Equipment-Plan-2017-to-2027.pdf

Image: RAF Eurofighter Typhoon in Battle of Britain camouflage markings at the Duxford VE air show, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s